Hong Kong should combat ‘soft resistance’ with ‘soft power’ rather than full brunt of the law: justice secretary Paul Lam

Hong Kong’s justice chief has ruled out the use of legal means to combat “soft resistance”, urging the city to learn instead from foreign powers to wield “soft power” to counter scaremongering and despair caused by troublemakers.

Secretary for Justice Paul Lam Ting-kwok also told the Post in an exclusive interview that the fake news law, an idea put forth by the former administration, was now off the legislative agenda because of “very difficult legal questions” in defining what fake news was, especially in separating facts from opinions.

He also pointed out that the need for it had been partly met by a new domestic national security law passed a month ago, in fulfilment of Article 23 of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.

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The more immediate challenge was to tackle “soft resistance” – a term first coined in April 2021 by former director of Beijing’s liaison office Luo Huining, who had called for “regulation over soft resistance according to law”.

In the interview, justice minister Lam said that “soft resistance” often involved “false, misleading, unfair” statements that aimed to create “unnecessary and unjustified fears” or despair, such as saying “Hong Kong is no longer an international financial centre” or “it is a graveyard”.

He acknowledged that people were concerned whenever the term “soft resistance” was used. “Some people may worry whether this concept might be used or misused as an excuse ... to restrict people’s rights and freedom because we are talking about lawful acts,” he said.

“There’s no legal means to counter [soft resistance], because what they are doing is lawful, no matter how much you dislike what they do,” he said.

The government had been expressing repeatedly its concerns over “soft resistance”. Last October, Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu cited attempts to sow conflict and confusion in the guise of raising livelihood issues as tantamount to engaging in such “soft resistance”. Security minister Chris Tang Ping-keung had also said it could come in the form of activism via the arts or film as a form of thwarting the government.

Hong Kong justice minister Paul Lam to avoid the West

Acknowledging the concerns, Lam said the government could not sit idle because such scaremongering and despair-inducing narratives carried harmful consequences: “We have to build up, we have to strengthen our soft power to use soft power to counter soft resistance.”

Lam, who chaired the city’s consumer watchdog before taking on the justice secretary post, said the government had to also promote a more positive image of itself through astute marketing.

He suggested that the flexing of soft power could start with rebuttals and articulation of information that would enable the public to make an informed judgment on what they heard, thereby enhancing people’s confidence and trust.

He said the government was “improving” on this front, adding that it could also learn from those who had attacked the city’s domestic national security legislation.

“We have to learn from foreign powers. Why are they so successful? Why are so many people so attracted by what the foreign powers, external powers said?”

“They are experts in using soft power. They’ve done it for decades. And we have to understand that maybe there are certain things that we can learn ... I mean soft skills. I mean to educate people in a way that people can really understand.”

Banners promoting National Security Education Day earlier this month. Justice minister Lam says lessons can be learned from foreign powers about using soft power. Photo: Yik Yeung-man

Lam maintained that the government needed different views to enable proper decision making despite the frequent “soft resistance” warnings from officials.

“I don’t think it’s meant to aim at disagreement with the government, criticism, objection or even opposition per se,” he said. “People may criticise the government. Not only that they are lawful, I think they are necessary.

“We are not seeking to use this term to make Hong Kong a less open society. That’s not really the point.”

On the fake news law, Lam said: “At the moment, I can tell you there’s no plan to enact any piece of legislation on fake news. It’s not just a political matter. It’s a legal matter. How to define fake news? I mean, that’s a very difficult legal question.

“Because even when we look at the Singaporean legislation, we find that there can be difficulties in prescribing what is permissible and not permissible. How to distinguish between fact and opinion? How can you tell what is true and what is untrue?”

Hong Kong security law will be used, though no arrests in first month: Paul Lam

Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act came into force in October 2019. Lam said it remained “a matter yet to be seen” whether the Singaporean law was effective in application or had any “negative consequences”.

He said the need for a dedicated fake news law had also faded after the city enacted a month ago the Safeguarding National Security Ordinance, which incorporates the existing sedition offences and outlaws certain acts of spreading false statements that pose threats to national security.

“We are focusing on the damaging effect of certain statements, making it very restrictive, very purpose-specific, in order not to give the people the impression that we are placing any restriction on freedom of expression,” said Lam.

The justice minister’s clarification is the clearest sign from the current administration that the fake news law, first mooted by former chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and later studied by the Home and Youth Affairs Bureau, is no longer on the agenda.

The idea was conceived at first to curb the spread of misinformation during the social unrest in 2019. John Lee had earlier said an anti-fake news law would only be a last resort, indicating a preference for a self-regulatory approach.

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