States around the world are criminalizing dissent in response to a global and ongoing wave of uprisings.
By JN from Lausan and Simoun Magsalin from Bandilang Itim. (Graphic: spf.pdf for Lausan.) Originally published by Lausan.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen the widespread failure of states across the world to carry out the function of providing healthcare and proper protective resources to its citizens. Many have risen in revolt across the world against this flagrant abandonment by their governments, whose unconscionable exposure of the most vulnerable and marginalized to infection only serves to maintain the flow of global capital. The social chaos that has ensued has created an apt cover for governments to begin consolidating their own power, wielding the threat of “emergency” to ram through legislation that consolidates their unaccountable monopoly on violence.
In this sense, the Anti-Terrorism Act in the Philippines signed into law by President Rodrigo Duterte and the National Security Laws (NSL) imposed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on Hong Kong are cut from the same cloth, and form a microcosm of our current geopolitical landscape. Indeed, these laws may signal an era of global governance defined by a resurgence of sovereignty as conceived by infamous German jurist Carl Schmitt: the sovereign’s monopoly not over violence but over the suspension of law itself.
The National Security Laws in Hong Kong
While Hong Kong’s recent history of protests have primarily reacted to the CCP’s slow but steady encroachment against the One Country, Two Systems model, the current uprising has galvanized around the unchecked and escalating use of police violence against protesters, drawing a record levels of condemnation across Hong Kong’s 7.5 million people.
This widespread anti-police sentiment is especially astounding because the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF) has long been associated with the notion of “stability.” As a maritime entrepôt, early colonial Hong Kong society was characterized by a chaotic mix of laborers and traders from around the world. Colonial administrators created the HKPF in the image of the London Police Force and so both had as their central role the control of workers and suppression of labor unrest.
This has remained a constant whether it was under the colonial administration of the British or now under the Hong Kong government. Put simply, the primary role of the police is to protect the generation of profit, the safety of private property, and the passage of sovereignty from one colonial capitalist regime to another. This function explains the daily rounds of violence that police have perpetuated for close to 12 months against protesters disrupting the status quo.
For their part, protesters aiming to attack business as usual in Hong Kong have been exceedingly successful. Five months after the beginning of the protests, Hong Kong soon spiraled into a recession, with banks adjusting GDP forecasts from growth toward contractions of up to 5%. And despite the police’s reputation for maintaining (capitalist) order, their brutality has in fact caused Hongkongers to continue to desire its disruption. This increased disillusionment amongst the public in an institution once dubbed “Asia’s Finest” reveals the emptiness of the police’s own rhetoric of order and control as the diametric opposite of violent and radical dissent.
The dire impact on Hong Kong’s economy, and to some extent, that of the PRC, paved the way for the NSL to be considered a self-justified political and economic solution to unrest. Indeed, Financial Secretary Paul Chan insisted that banking and private wealth sectors supported the National Security Laws—without knowing its contents but merely for its promise of “stability.” Though authoritarian capitalism is amenable to profit-making in its own ways, for many elites, part of Hong Kong’s “emergency” was certainly financial.
The state-sanctioned police violence that wracked Hong Kong in the second half of 2019 was a prelude to Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s increasingly authoritarian methods of governance, first extended through the invocation of the Emergency Regulations Ordinance and a ban on face-coverings in public in October 2019, to the imposition of sweeping regulations on public gatherings under the guise of public health best practice, beginning in January 2020 and stretching into June.
These were twin “states of emergency” that the government used to legitimize its consolidation of power. Yet, the government itself was also the cause of these emergencies, through its own non-democratic governance in handling legitimate public grievance and its inadequate, politicized response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Or, more accurately, the state of emergency forms the outer edge of the normative legal order itself. That is to say, under this form of sovereignty, we are always in a state of emergency, just to different degrees.
Ironically, if not predictably, the NSL officially imposed by Beijing on June 30 in response to the ongoing uprising wholly supersedes the proposed extradition bill that ignited the protests in the first place: Criminalization of dissent against the PRC outside of its borders and new mandatory minimum sentences of three, five, or ten years to life imprisonment for vaguely defined subversive acts have already initiated a new era in Hong Kong’s history—and have quickly been put to use in censoring books, banning protest slogans, and even arresting protesters for holding blank paper.
While the law has faced broad criticism from Hongkongers and many abroad, it is precisely the twin emergencies of pandemic and rebellion that lead supporters to see the NSL as necessary. Yet the more a populace sinks into the mire of “necessity” against a perceived threat, the more it gives ground to the state to expand “emergency” and thus cement the exception as the new norm.
The Anti-Terrorism Act in the Philippines
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Philippine Senate and House of Representatives rushed the passage of the highly contentious Anti-Terrorism Act, nicknamed the “Terror Law” by its detractors, which expands policing powers, surveillance, and the use of warrantless arrests. The law amended the already controversial Human Security Act and was certified as an urgent bill by President Duterte, who later signed it into law on July 3 despite widespread condemnation. The law arrives in a pre-existing environment of impunity, where extrajudicial killings—condoned and even promoted by the President—target the urban poor, as well as Muslim and Lumad Indigenous people.
The Philippine National Police (PNP) are at the forefront of this state violence, having committed brutality after brutality against the populace. Tens of thousands have already died in Duterte’s disastrous War on Drugs, killed by police or by vigilantes; scores more have been detained in increasingly cramped detention sites. Essentially, the state handled the pandemic as a security issue rather than a health issue. This “war against an unseen enemy” is superficial, a perfect pretext to silence dissent and railroad laws and measures that expand its own powers. Under the state’s pandemic quarantine measures, police killed several people, including one high-profile case where a police officer shot a military veteran in broad daylight and planted a gun on them afterwards to cover it up.