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Freedom and hope die on a sinister day for Hong Kong

The purge of an entire generation of democratic leaders has created a sense of bleak uneasiness

Gianni Criveller

Gianni Criveller

Updated: January 08, 2021 04:16 AM GMT
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Freedom and hope die on a sinister day for Hong Kong

John Clancey, a US-born solicitor in Hong Kong, is led away by police after he was arrested under the national security law on Jan. 6 in the largest operation yet against Beijing's critics, deepening a crackdown sweeping the financial hub. (Photo: AFP)

It rains on the wet in Hong Kong: 2021 started in the worst possible way. Sadness and despair grow in the city. We have written it many times: the city is no longer.

On Jan. 6, some 53 former parliamentarians (the same ones who had resigned in protest last November) and democratic activists were arrested. The police took them one by one from their homes. The accusation is unbelievable: they are charged with subversion, punishable with up to life imprisonment, for having organized informal democratic primaries last summer, through telephone participation, in preparation for the parliamentary elections due last September but then canceled by the government.

The Democrats, with good reason, had hoped to win all the seats at their disposal and consequently be able to effectively oppose government decisions. In fact, this is how parliamentary democracy works in the world. On that basis, they are accused of conspiring to subvert the functions of government.

Among them there is, for the first time, a foreign citizen, the elderly and well-respected US-born human rights lawyer John (Jack) Clancey, a resident of Hong Kong for many decades and president of the Asian Human Rights Commission.

We know Clancey well. His arrest affects us closely and stirs in many a sense of bleak uneasiness. We are sorry for the injustice he suffers. He arrived in Hong Kong in the 1960s as a Catholic missionary with the Maryknoll Institute. He was then involved in demonstrations against the US war in Vietnam. He was chaplain to Catholic university students and then, after leaving the ordained ministry, he continued his mission, always with a peaceful and generous dedication, for the defense of human rights, justice and democracy. In 1991 he published God, Hear Our Prayer, a prayer book for workers.

The arrest of the former missionary, who remained in solidarity with the commitment of Catholics for justice and peace, is a sinister signal of the inexorable direction of events regarding the Church’s participation in social issues and the operation of foreign missionaries.

On Jan. 6 we saw the purge of an entire generation of democratic leaders who, on several occasions in 2019, organized popular demonstrations involving about 2 million people, or a quarter of Hong Kong’s population.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, had repeatedly stated that the national security law introduced last year would be applied only to stop the violent fringes of the pro-democracy demonstrations. She must had known she was lying. The people arrested are peaceful and well-known people, democratic men and women committed to the institutions, parliamentarians elected by the people.

It is not yet revealed who generated the violence of 2019. We will never really know. Instead, those criminalized are the most moderate people who believed in reforming and improving things from within the “one country, two systems” principle. According to the Chinese Communist Party, we are allies to be plugged in or enemies to be eliminated. There is no room for anything else.

The politically independent judiciary — one of the strengths of the Hong Kong system — is increasingly under tremendous pressure from the national security law, as evidenced by the recent Jimmy Lai case.

The regime’s press harshly attacked the judge who had granted bail to the Catholic media tycoon. The chief executive not only failed to defend the prerogatives of the judiciary but took the side of those who made intimidating attacks on magistrates. The independent judiciary is the last line of defense for a minimum of justice in Hong Kong. But I am not optimistic. It will soon be gone.

Freedom and hope are not the only victims. There is a real subversion of the ordinary sense of words and concepts. There is an abysmal distance and discrepancy between the hyperbolic accusations against the arrested and the disputed facts. The relationship is perverted between reality and the language to express. A normal exercise of democracy like the primaries and the obvious declaration of a desire to win elections are considered subversion of the powers of the state.

If this unscrupulous linguistic operation works, as Ilaria Maria Sala and Louisa Lim have well observed, it will happen as in China 30 years ago after the Tiananmen Square massacre: many people in Hong Kong will change the perception of the meaning of events, even the most recent ones in which they were involved. The survival instinct will create a new collective memory, flattened on the narratives of the regime.

Father Gianni Criveller of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions is dean of studies and a teacher at PIME International Missionary School of Theology in Milan, Italy. He taught in Greater China for 27 years and is a lecturer in mission theology and the history of Christianity in China at the Holy Spirit Seminary College of Philosophy and Theology in Hong Kong. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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