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 past several years have not been good for feminism and gender rights in Hong Kong. The pro-democracy protests that rocked the city also saw women protestors reportedly trolled online and sparked #ProtestToo, a rare #MeToo-style sub-movement where thousands gathered following allegations of sexual assault by the police. One complaint, filed by a teenager who accused officers of gang rape during the protests, was dropped by the Department of Justice due to “contrary evidence.”
While praised for the active involvement of women protesters, the pro-democracy movement itself has also been criticized for sexism. Female government officials, police officers and critics of the movement faced sexualized insults and threats; frontline women protesters were idealized as martyrs, which some feminists have condemned as it presents women as only being of value in their sacrifice.
“[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.
Since the implementation of the national security law in 2020, over 50 civil society groups, from trade and teachers’ unions to student organizations, have disbanded. And more than 180 people (including activists and pro-democracy figures who have advocated for gender issues) have been arrested since the law was enacted in June 2020, according to a tracker run by ChinaFile magazine.
Following an overhaul of the city’s electoral system to ensure loyalty to the Chinese state, pro-Beijing lawmakers and councilors now dominate the city’s legislature. After the reforms, more than 200 district councilors have either resigned or been disqualified and many have been arrested on national security grounds, forcing out almost all opposition.
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.
Kenneth Cheung, one of those councilors, democratically elected into office by voters in 2019 before he was disqualified by authorities, said the expulsion of pro-democracy politicians will further reduce avenues for gender advocacy in the government.
Cheung said many researchers and office staff working on gender-related initiatives with pro-democracy lawmakers are now unemployed, and there is now less 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.”
Political changes have also hampered the gender activism of Lily Wong, a sex activist and former member of the now-disbanded pro-democracy group Demosisto. In 2020, Wong co-founded a YouTube channel exploring sex-related topics called “Faan Hou ABC,” with Yuen and another pro-democracy activist Ho Ka-yau.
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 assault 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.
Unlike in other parts of the world, the #MeToo movement failed to get mainstream acceptance here. Hong Kong has performed well on some gender equality metrics. The 2021 report from the Women’s Commission — set up to promote the development of women in Hong Kong — shows that over the past decade women outnumbered men in higher education programs funded by the University Grants Committee, and that their participation in some fields and professional roles had also grown.
However, many feminists say higher representation has not translated into genuine equality and society remains deeply patriarchal.
Take sexual violence which Hong Kong’s Women’s Foundation described as a “pervasive, deeply concerning problem”. A 2021 survey by the Hong Kong Women’s Coalition on Equal Opportunities found that nearly 40% of respondents (37.5%) say they experienced sexual violence in their lifetime — up from 15% when the survey was last conducted in 2013. Fear of being blamed and not believed were reportedly two of the main reasons victims don’t seek help.
The Women’s Foundation, citing government figures, also published an infographic in 2019 that included details such as “only 55% of women are in the workforce” and “Hong Kong has a gender pay gap of 22%”
In popular culture, sexist tropes, such as the stereotype of the “Kong girl” — a woman from Hong Kong who is materialistic and pampered — also continue to proliferate.
Even when the city had a female chief executive, Carrie Lam, few saw her tenure as a win for women’s rights. Not only did Lam overlook the issue of gender in her public addresses throughout her time in office, she has also been accused of using the fact that she is a mother to deflect criticism of her actions.
“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.”
Some might say that Hong Kong in recent times has seen more progress on LGBTQ+ issues than on women’s rights, but China’s hardening stance on LGBTQ+ activism on the mainland has also started to trickle down into Hong Kong politics, sparking concerns over a new surge in conservatism.
In the run up to the Gay Games — an international sporting, arts and culture event organized for the LGBTQ+ community — some pro-Beijing lawmakers have condemned the event which is due to take place in November 2023, calling it a “threat to national security” and a guise through which to promote political causes.
While the LGBTQ+ community has seen some legal victories in recent years, the city has no legal protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and same-sex marriage has yet to be legalized. “I’m really concerned. The situation is getting worse,” says Alvin Cheung, a gay activist and social worker.
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.
Ming Chan, a transgender activist in her 20s, is one of them. In 2020, she helped co-found Quarks, a trans and non-binary youth support group that now has some 2,700 followers on social media.
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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Women Behaving Badly: Ma Anand Sheela (1949 – present)
Written by Adie Vanessa Offiong
Ma Anand Sheela was relatively unknown to many beyond India and the US, prior to the release of the 2018 six-part Netflix documentary, Wild Wild Country.
The piece, showed her as the fearless right hand and personal secretary of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (also known as Osho), founder of the Rajneesh movement, which attracted devotees from around the world to its base in the Oregon desert. The movement is now largely known for a series of criminal activities it conducted, including one of America’s largest immigration frauds and the largest bioterror attack in the country, orchestrated by Sheela. Despite this, she still maintains a following.
Born Sheela Ambalal Patel into a wealthy Mumbai family in India, Ma Anand Sheela studied linguistics at Baroda University, India and Art at Montclair State College in New Jersey, where she met her first husband, Marc Silverman. She married three times.
After University, Sheela was introduced to Rajneesh by her father, who saw him as a spiritual teacher, and she is said to have been instantly devoted to him.
She is now described as the mastermind behind Rajneesh’s dealings and admits to Australia’s 60 Minutes to being the one with the ability to put his “dreams and vision” into practice.
In 1984, Sheela orchestrated a large-scale bioterror attack, contaminating the salad bars at ten restaurants in Oregon in hope of rendering people unable to vote and help sway a county election in favour of the cult’s own candidates. The attack, sickened 751 people and put 45 in hospital.
In 1986, she was charged with immigration fraud, attempted murder, wiretapping and conspiracy to tamper with consumer products. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison, according to a Swiss Info report. She was released for good behavior after 39 months, paid a $470,000 fine and was deported, according to an Associated Press report.
She currently lives in Switzerland where she runs two residential homes for people with mental illnesses.
Deep dive: Abortion
This week, in an unprecedented leak, news broke that the US Supreme Court could overturn the country’s 50-year-old ruling that legalized abortion in the country. Here are some stories that provide context on what’s been happening in the US and elsewhere in the world when it comes to abortion.