Uncivil Disobedience Versus the Police State: The End of Hong Kong’s Rule of Law?

Mr Brendan Clift1

1Melbourne Law School, Australia

The 2019 explosion of political contention in Hong Kong is the latest in a succession of escalating protest movements post-1997, rooted in Beijing’s refusal to countenance meaningful political reform in its Special Administrative Region. During the 2014 Umbrella Movement, both sides laid claim to the rule of law. Protesters justified peaceful civil disobedience as free speech and assembly in pursuit of democratic rights. The government emphasised obedience to the letter of the law. Ultimately, most protesters complied with court orders to vacate protest sites. The subsequent use of law to prosecute opposition figureheads, disqualify legislators, suppress symbolic expression and ban political parties repositioned law as an authoritarian tool rather than a human rights shield and accountability mechanism. This shift, combined with the hard lesson that “peaceful protest doesn’t work”, diminished law’s standing as a neutral regulating force. By 2019, combative protesters were setting fires and destroying infrastructure, anonymous police were deploying unrestrained, sometimes-fatal force, and the government was invoking limitless emergency powers. The courts were reduced to ruling on injunctions with little impact on street-level realities. With established legal boundaries trampled, has Hong Kong become lawless? What are the consequences for its future, and that of the China governance model?


Brendan Clift is a Teaching Fellow and PhD Candidate at Melbourne Law School, the University of Melbourne. He currently researches law and courts under authoritarianism, focusing on post-1997 Hong Kong where he lived and worked for over a decade. His other research interests include media law, copyright, torts and crime.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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