Activists and scholars also say the move will only further hinder civil liberties and human rights, including one that has already come under fire: the city’s embattled gender movement.
“If John Lee adopts the Mainland China model of managing civil society, this may bring about a further onslaught of Hong Kong’s once vibrant civil society,” says Diana Fu, Associate Professor of political science at the University of Toronto. “In the mainland model, civil society groups that advocate for liberal rights — including gender equality — are seen as conduits of Western influence.”
“Gender awareness has to be promoted from the bottom up,” said Petula Ho, a local feminist scholar. “But it’s like the whole of society has given up on this issue.”
“[The pro-democracy movement] has this populist element which has made it more patriarchal and more difficult for diversity and gender issues to exist,” said Ho, who has researched these dynamics and told CNN she’s faced attacks on social media for her critiques.
Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong has made it more difficult to advocate for any causes, let alone gender-related ones.
Those ousted include Tiffany Yuen, a former district councilor with a background of promoting women’s rights and Raymond Chan, Hong Kong’s first lawmaker who publicly identified as gay, as well as three other gay and lesbian district councilors.
Cheung said many researchers and office staff working on gender-related initiatives with pro-democracy lawmakers are now unemployed, and there is now fewer progressive representation on these issues in public forums. The closing of progressive media outlets such as Stand News has already weakened coverage on these topics, he added.
“When I look ahead at the next five to ten years, I feel depressed,” Cheung said, explaining that democracy and progressive causes are intrinsically
linked. “Before, democratic politicians would raise issues about marginalized communities or invite questions. In the coming era, we probably won’t see this anymore.”
The channel initially took off due to its pro-democracy stances, but was able to capture a wider audience by linking issues about sex and gender to democracy and liberal values.
“Compared to the 2014 Umbrella Movement, more women were accepted on the frontlines in 2019, which was a big change,” Wong told CNN, adding that while she too, like Ho, condemned the sexist behavior by some protesters, the movement did positively influence people’s attitudes towards women in other ways. “Although issues like gender were secondary, I think these secondary issues still progressed.”
When Yuen was charged with allegedly violating national security last year, however, the women shut down the channel. “In the coming years, I think people will be more cautious when it comes to engaging with political causes,” Wong said.
CNN put to the government the issues of shrinking civil society space, Carrie Lam’s record on gender initiatives and the allegations of sexual assualt by the police.
“The allegation is no further from the truth,” a government spokesperson told CNN, adding that the rights of Hong Kong residents are “protected in accordance with the law” but that “many freedoms and rights are not absolute, and can be restricted for reasons including protection of national security and public safety.”
In response to allegations of police misconduct, the spokesperson said law enforcement agencies take actions based on “evidence,” are responsible for maintaining public safety, and will “exercise professional judgment to take appropriate actions, including using the minimum force as necessary.”
No comment was made about the out-going leader, Lam.
Hong Kong, still waiting for its feminist uprising
The future for progressive politics may look bleak now. But when it comes to feminism and gender equality, Hong Kong has long been a challenging environment.
However, many feminists say higher representation has not translated into genuine equality and society remains deeply patriarchal.
“She used her image to justify certain actions and present herself as a good mother, as if by virtue of being a mother that [a positive] implication is there,” Ho told CNN. “But then of course people really don’t think she’s motherly at all, she is somebody who we think is against ethics of care.”
Despite the more repressive political atmosphere, there are still small groups and individuals creating safe spaces to talk about gender and sexuality, particularly online, according to Grace Ting, assistant professor of gender studies at the University of Hong Kong.
Chan says some communities like hers are thriving, because after the pro-democracy movement, more people are realizing that they can impact society in different ways.
“I’m lucky to have such a space,” Chan told CNN. “I believe some of the energies generated from the political movement have been transferred to the gender equality and feminist movement, because it’s a field where you can still do something.”
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