Hong Kong Opens Youth “Deradicalization” Programs and Closes Student Unions

Hong Kong’s Security Bureau has recently revealed, and praised, the government’s use of “deradicalization” programs for jailed protesters who participated in the 2019 pro-democracy movement. The bureau’s secretary outlined the nature of the programs in a written explanation to the Legislative Council (LegCo), and critics have claimed the programs bear a worrisome resemblance to incarceration tactics used against ethnic groups in Xinjiang. Almond Li from the Hong Kong Free Press broke the story on the Hong Kong “deradicalization” programs last week:

Around 250 people in custody have taken part up until February, the Bureau told the legislature’s Finance Committee on Wednesday.

The Correctional Services Department’s rehabilitation programmes aim to help inmates “disengage from radical thoughts and behaviours, and re-establish correct values,” through lessons about Chinese history, the Basic Law and the national security law, the Bureau wrote.

Other initiatives include workshops to help persons in custody enhance their sense of national identity and law-abidingness, as well as therapy sessions to handle extreme anti-social and violent mindsets. [Source]

Last summer, former Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying commissioned a study by the One Country Two Systems Research Institute examining how to address youth radicalization, which he described as an “alarming” trend since the pro-democracy protests. Kris Cheng from VOA spoke with anonymous young participants of Hong Kong’s “deradicalization” programs who described being forced to watch videos praising the CCP:

On Sundays, inmates were allowed to watch a movie, but before the main attraction, authorities “would play some clips made by TVB, [a Hong Kong-based television broadcaster with ties to the CCP,] basically saying how good China is — how advanced the technology is, how convenient their transportation is and how amazing their food is.” The pre-movie videos were 30 to 45 minutes long.

[…] “I think it’s brainwashing,” they told VOA Cantonese. “Every morning during breakfast, we would watch these shows about China’s advanced technology. It was on all the time, over and over.”

Social workers assigned to their case questioned them about the pro-democracy movement, they said.

“They were so gossipy, they kept asking me what exactly I had done, whether I ever had weapons, what’s my view on social movement, and if I regret what I’ve done,” they said.

“Sometimes I thought they were just chatting, but (the conversations) always ended with how good life is in (China),” they continued to say. [Source]

Hong Kong’s “deradicalization” programs, as described in the LegCo document and in media reports, have certain features in common with the Chinese government’s “re-education” programs in Xinjiang, based on descriptions of the latter by a Chinese government White Paper, Xinjiang officials, and former instructors and detainees of the camps. Both sets of programs are ostensibly voluntary; focus on reorienting values and enhancing national identity; employ a framework of “deradicalization” and “education”; and include vocational training workshops, activities that praise the CCP, and courses about the history of China.

While it is not clear whether parts of the Hong Kong programs were deliberately modeled on the programs in Xinjiang, there have been other signs that Hong Kong government officials have taken inspiration from security practices employed in the region. In December 2018, a delegation from Hong Kong’s antiterrorism task force traveled to Xinjiang to study methods to combat terrorism and extremism. The delegation was led by current security bureau deputy-director Sonny Au Chi-kwong, and the task force includes officers from the correctional service department, which announced the “deradicalization” programs this month. In January 2022, Major General Peng Jingtang became the new commander of Hong Kong’s PLA garrison after serving as deputy chief of staff of the People’s Armed Police in Xinjiang, where he was tasked with counterterrorism. His appointment, along with other recent leadership changes in Hong Kong, points to a greater focus on counterterrorism and public security.

The report on youth radicalization commissioned by Leung Chun-ying acknowledged the need for preserving political spaces such as university student unions, as the South China Morning Post described: “The paper proposed that to curb radicalisation, platforms must be broadened for young people to participate in politics and public affairs.” Despite this, student unions have been a target of the heightened focus on security and deradicalization, and many have now been “shackled” or forced to disband. The Diplomat’s Thomas Chan traced the evolution of student unions from their essential role in the city’s social activism to their decline under the National Security Law, and described how Hong Kong officials have associated student unions with radicalization and terrorism

Student unions “have wantonly instilled among students improper values and disseminated false or biased messages in an attempt to incite their hatred against the country and the [government], or even advocated the resort to violence and illegal acts for political ends,” Security Secretary Christopher Tang said during a Legislative Council hearing.

“People sympathizing with violent attacks are prone to further radicalization and becoming supporters, who could then easily turn into participants of terrorist activities,” he added.

The city’s former leader, Leung Chun-Ying, also pulled no punches in criticizing student unions’ role in politics. He believed that their cause for self-determination is at odds with Beijing’s National Security Law and would only grow if unchecked.

“A child who steals a needle will grow up to steal gold,” he said in an interview with South China Morning Post. “We need to care for the young. We cannot afford to underestimate the seriousness of the problem; tolerance will only cause more widespread harm.” [Source]

Just this week, Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) became Hong Kong’s fifth university to fully cut ties with its student union since the introduction of the National Security Law. The student union refused to sign a “vague” compliance agreement that would have allowed the university to terminate the union’s official status over any acts deemed to endanger the university’s reputation. Lea Mok from the Hong Kong Free Press reported on the incident and on other universities that have severed ties with their student unions:   

PolyU became the fifth university to ban its top student body from accessing university’s resources, after the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), the University of Hong Kong (HKU), the City University of Hong Kong (CityU), and Lingnan University.

[…] CUHK cited national security concerns when it cut ties with its student body in February. All members of the CUHK students’ union resigned the same day they were elected, citing death threats and having foreseen that the body might not be able to freely express its political opinions. The 50-year-old students’ union decided to dissolve in October 2021.

Student leaders from HKU’s students’ union have been arrested by national security police over allegedly advocating terrorism. The student body passed a motion to mourn for a man who stabbed a police officer on July 1 before killing himself. HKU barred student leaders from entering its campus and going to classes.

Lingnan and CityU requested their students’ unions to vacate campus premises in February, citing financial reasons and the need to release rooms for other student organisations. Local media quoted sources saying that the national security department of the police were investigating CityU’s students’ union after student leaders initiated an on-campus protest to oppose the university’s move-out-order in mid-February. [Source]

Meanwhile, as AFP reported on Tuesday, two Hong Kong citizens were convicted and sentenced to two years in jail for sharing a Facebook post that called for casting blank votes in last year’s LegCo poll:

Salesman Chan Kin-man, 36, and office assistant Alice Leung, 65, were both sentenced to two months in jail with 18 months of suspension respectively by a magistrate in Hong Kong after pleading guilty to “inciting others” not to vote, or to cast invalid vote.

[…] Chan and Leung were arrested shortly before polls opened for reposting a Facebook appeal by Mr Ted Hui, a former opposition lawmaker living overseas, who called on Hong Kong voters to “cast a blank vote to resist the unjust system”.

Although casting a blank vote is not an offence in Hong Kong, principal magistrate Bina Chainrai said in court on Tuesday that Mr Hui’s post was illegal because “it’s more than just asking people to cast blank votes, he was asking people to… express dissatisfaction of the government”. [Source]

Inciting others to boycott a vote in Hong Kong can carry a penalty of up to three years in jail and a maximum fine of HK$200,000 (US$25,672). In this case, the principal magistrate, citing the serious nature of the offense, denied the defense’s request to substitute jail sentences with community service. She also suspended the jail terms for one and a half years and ordered Chan and Leung to pay fees towards the cost of the court proceedings. The pair were charged last December by Hong Kong’s anti-corruption watchdog, the Independent Commission Against Corruption, which arrested ten people on suspicion of calling for invalid votes. A third defendant, Chou Wing-tat, pleaded guilty to the same charge last week and is scheduled to be sentenced in May. The December LegCo election that sparked the charges was Hong Kong’s first “patriots only” election since the electoral reforms that effectively barred opposition candidates from running. Turnout was historically low, with only 30.2 percent of voters participating in the election. 



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