What is ‘soft resistance’? Hong Kong officials vow to take a hard line against it, but provide no definition

The sedition case of children illustration book series has often been cited as an act of soft resistance. Candice Chau/HKFP.

The original version of this report was published in Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) on August 5, 2023. The following edited version has been published on Global Voices as part of a content partnership agreement with HKFP.

In recent months, Hong Kong officials have vowed to take a hard line against “soft resistance” but failed to define what the term means. HKFP examines when it first emerged, what it has been applied to, and what legal scholars make of it.

What is ‘soft resistance?’

On April 15, 2021, the then-director of China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, Luo Hui-ning, warned that Hong Kong must crack down on any behaviour that threatened national security, which he described as “hard resistance.” He was making a speech to mark the city’s National Security Education Day almost a year after Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution to criminalise subversion, secession, foreign collusion and terrorism.

Luo said that the city must also regulate “soft resistance.”

Following Luo’s speech, pro-establishment commentator Lau Siu-kai told local news outlet HK01 that hard resistance referred to pro-independence forces and those promoting separatism and violence. Soft resistance focused on ideological work, including “disseminating disinformation, creating panic, maliciously attacking the SAR government and the central authorities and distorting the Basic Law.”

Lau pointed to the media sector and accused some outlets of engaging in “opinion manipulation” and spreading hatred. He claimed there were also teachers who “disseminated misleading information” in schools and made statements which amounted to “distorting history.”

Those were the major causes of the unrest in Hong Kong in recent years, Lau said, but they belonged to the “ideological realm,” which was “difficult to be fully addressed through the law” and hence needed to be regulated.

When did the Hong Kong government start targeting ‘soft resistance?’

According to the Hong Kong government press release archive, the term soft resistance was first used in Chinese by Secretary for Security Chris Tang on July 3, 2021, during a speech he gave in Cantonese at a legal forum about the Beijing-enacted security law.

Although the national security law curbed the “flagrant illegal behaviour” of pro-independence forces in the city, they did not “give up entirely,” the minister said. He pointed to street booths set up by organisations advocating for Hong Kong independence, documentary screenings and the sales of protest-related books as examples of material “glorifying rioters” and “infiltrating violence through culture.” Tang said,

Therefore, we must remain vigilant and also urge the citizens of Hong Kong to stay away from activities that are hijacked by Hong Kong independence advocates. They should not be used as a shield for the Hong Kong independence movement.

The term first appeared in the press release archive in English in August 2021, when Tang was responding to questions from then-lawmaker Horace Cheung, who was concerned about “young people’s minds being poisoned by terrorist ideologies.”

The minister said at the time that student concern groups, political bodies or even tutorial schools “wantonly instilled among students improper values and disseminated false or biased messages.” They promoted such “extreme ideologies” by producing biased teaching materials, holding street booths and through the internet. He added:

Also, ideologies endangering national security are still infiltrating via the media, culture and arts, and other ‘soft resistance’ means to poison young people.

On April 15 this year, Beijing’s top official overseeing Hong Kong and Macau matters, Xia Baolong, again warned the city to be vigilant against soft resistance.

Alleged acts of ‘soft resistance’

Five members of the speech therapists union behind a series of animal-farm-like children's books were jailed last September after being found guilty of sedition, a case often cited as an act of soft resistance. Tang mentioned it again when he told the Chinese-language newspaper Sing Tao that tackling acts of soft resistance was necessary and the authorities would not compromise. 

The speech therapists’ case was also mentioned by Edwina Lau, the head of the National Security Department of the Hong Kong Police Force, in April this year when she gave media interviews before her retirement. She said,

While it may seem to be harmless, in reality planting provocative ideas in the minds of children can have long-lasting harmful effects. This is a prime example of a signature case of ‘soft confrontation’.

Lau, speaking to reporters, also gave another example of soft resistance. She pointed to a series of national anthem blunders at international sporting events, where organisers wrongly played “Glory to Hong Kong,” the unofficial anthem of the 2019 protests, as the city’s national anthem rather than the Chinese national anthem “March of the Volunteers.” She questioned whether the blunders were premeditated, despite repeated statements from organisers that the mix-ups were an honest mistake.

Criticism and response

Concern over the definition of the term was raised last month by former Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau, at a panel discussion hosted by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) relating to the third anniversary of the national security law. Lau, who worked as a reporter in the 1970s, said she did not know the definition of soft resistance, adding that she did not think any journalists “should feel that you are safe.”

The FCC event was held a day after the security chief reiterated the necessity to clampdown soft resistance in an interview with Sing Tao:

When faced with such erroneous behaviours of ‘soft resistance,’ we must make every effort to confront them head-on. […] The underlying cause of these incidents was individuals utilising ‘soft resistance’ methods through media, cultural arts, and other means to incite hatred towards the central government, SAR government, law enforcement officers, to promote violence, and encourage others to breach the law.

The minister denied the intention to regulate soft resistance is to “control the citizens’ thoughts.” Tang said the national security law did not restrict residents from exercising free speech or criticising the government, nor did it affect academic freedom and creative work.

At the same FCC discussion, John Burns, emeritus professor and honorary professor of the Department of Politics and Public Administration of the University of Hong Kong, said the term “soft resistance” was “very vague” and did not convey exactly what the authorities were thinking. He said,

I am unaware that these things have been codified in the law, so this is a worrying development for many in Hong Kong…

Burns said the word “patriot” was code for “you agree with us,” and “resistance” was used to describe those who did not agree with the authorities:

If you agree with us, then okay, then you can be in the District Council, the LegCo, the Election Committee, all these things. But if you don’t agree with us, well then you are resisting. Hard resistance, soft resistance, I am unclear what it means.

Constitutional law expert Albert Chen of HKU, another speaker at the FCC event, said he did not know the definition of soft resistance, but it could mean the government using its own means to counteract what it perceived as the “wrong view of history, China, or whatever.”

Article 23

Soft resistance would be tackled by provisions in Hong Kong’s homegrown security legislation, security chief Tang said last month. In an interview with state-backed newspaper Ta Kung Pao, he said Hong Kong had seen “soft resistance” in recent years, as well as online discussions and publications that could easily radicalise people.

Article 23 of the Basic Law stipulates that the government shall enact laws on its own to prohibit acts of treason, secession, sedition and subversion against Beijing. Its legislation failed in 2003 following mass protests, and it was not tabled again until after the onset of the separate, Beijing-imposed security law in 2020. Pro-democracy advocates fear it could have a negative effect on civil liberties.

After shelving the legislation for more than two decades, the city’s leader vowed it would be enacted this year or next.

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