Hong Kong pro-democracy activists shout slogans in support of veteran activists outside West Kowloon Magistrates' Court on Feb. 16 as they go on trial for organizing a huge protest in 2019. (Photo: AFP)
Over the past six months, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime has, in effect, carried out a slow-motion coup in Hong Kong. And while it has done so without resorting to military on the streets, unlike in Myanmar, there are parallels between China’s dismantling of Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy and General Min Aung Hlaing’s overthrow of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Myanmar.
In both Hong Kong and Myanmar, the dramatic and overt takeover has come from a force that already held real power anyway and could have continued to exert authority without drawing much international attention.
In Myanmar, the military wrote the constitution, which gives it direct control of three key ministries — home affairs, border affairs and defense — as well as total control of the armed forces’ budget and a quarter of seats in parliament. In its power sharing with the democratically elected, civilian-led government — with Aung San Suu Kyi as its de facto head — it had the best of all worlds. It controlled the levers of power but let her take the flak from the international community. Why give all that up?
In Hong Kong, similarly, only a tiny minority of pro-independence activists seriously questioned China’s sovereignty over the city, which it assumed in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” framework.
The CCP controlled Hong Kong’s chief executive, had a majority of legislators in its pocket and dominated the city’s media. As a new report due to be published next week by Hong Kong Watch shows, the expansion of so-called “red capital” allowed the CCP’s tentacles to exert dominance over Hong Kong’s economy, turning the city into China’s ATM machine. Yet at the same time, until a year or two ago, Hong Kong retained at least a veneer of autonomy, with some semblance of freedom — however eroded — and with confidence in the rule of law diminishing but not totally disappeared.
In recent weeks, in both Myanmar and Hong Kong, the tyrants have thrown their toys out of their prams, dispensed with veneer and gone for all-out, total takeovers — and to hell with appearances.
In Myanmar, it is a result of the vain ambitions of one man, General Min Aung Hlaing, who knows that his term as commander-in-chief of the armed forces expires this year, who hoped that the military-backed party would have done better than it did in last November’s elections, who faces genocide charges and has many family business interests which in retired civilian life might leave him vulnerable, and who wants to be president.
To fulfil that desire and protect his interests, he has undone a decade of progress — which itself was admittedly very fragile — and, contrary to the usual principle, sacrificed his country for himself instead of himself for his country.
In Hong Kong, while there’s certainly a hefty dose of vanity where Xi Jinping is concerned, it is more to do with the CCP exerting a total takeover. Xi has resurrected the cult of personality not seen since Mao, ending term limits, potentially enabling him to be president for life and adding “Xi Jinping Thought” to the constitution. In contrast to his more pragmatic immediate predecessors, none of whom were exactly liberals, Xi has cracked down on all forms of dissent and demanded loyalty to himself and the party in a way that is reminiscent of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
Any last remaining vestiges of Hong Kong’s freedoms are being dismantled with breathtaking speed. With hammer, chisel, screwdriver and bulldozer, the CCP is working hard to ensure that voices of dissent in Hong Kong are silenced or at least muted.
The draconian national security law imposed on the city last July would, one might have thought, have been enough of a body blow to Hong Kong’s democrats to leave Beijing satisfied. But no. To use the CCP’s horrific, crude analogy, it regards anyone who isn’t absolutely loyal to Beijing as “cockroaches” – and so it is spraying insecticide into every possible corner.
Not only has it arrested prominent pro-democracy activists such as Jimmy Lai, Agnes Chow, Martin Lee — all of whom, incidentally, are Catholics — and others including Joshua Wong on multiple charges, as well as forced the entire pro-democracy camp out of the Legislative Council, turning the legislature into a puppet parliament, it has also now turned its guns on the only remaining directly elected representatives of the people: district councilors elected in November 2019.
This week it has announced that all elected officials in Hong Kong will be required to take an oath of loyalty to Beijing — and that those who violate their oath will be barred from office.
It doesn’t take a political genius to work out that the practice deployed in the past — of disqualifying legislators regarded as insufficiently loyal to Beijing — will be used against the pro-democracy district councilors soon. In other words, never mind what the people said at the ballot box, it’s what’s said in the Beijing box that counts.
Hong Kong’s schools are about to be engulfed with a propaganda curriculum teaching kids about how wonderful Xi Jinping is, how marvelous the CCP’s handling of Covid-19 is and how important it is that, for reasons of security, they should not sing certain songs, chant certain slogans or hold certain banners. To be honest, six-year-olds should be writing the curriculum, not studying it, such is the infantile nature of these ideas, but this is the fate that awaits Hong Kong’s children.
An editorial takeover at Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) — hitherto the BBC of the city, a spirited public broadcaster unafraid to provide independent reporting — is yet another example. I have had the privilege of being invited onto RTHK many times and, despite the time difference between London and Hong Kong, I have often done so in the early hours of the morning. Under the new editorial management, it will be very interesting to see whether I ever get invited back.
And in the latest hammer blow, legislation is due to be brought forth to criminalize “insults” to public officials.
Foul-mouthed abuse at ordinary civil servants is not tasteful, but legitimate criticism of government leaders is a bedrock of any civilized society, yet it sounds like Hong Kong’s beleaguered, incompetent, idiotic and immoral Beijing puppet chief executive Carrie Lam, who still dares to call herself a Catholic despite exhibiting no understanding of Catholic social teaching, has developed such a thin skin she wants a law to protect her.
Hong Kong’s Secretary of Injustice, Teresa Cheng, a notorious Beijing stooge, similarly is unable to defend herself by argument or debate, so wants to prevent criticism of her record by law. Bang, bang, bang go the last nails to make sure the coffin of Hong Kong’s freedoms — in Beijing’s eyes — is firmly sealed.
A common cause
This is a tale of two very different places.
One, Myanmar, a developing nation which over the past decade was just beginning to emerge from decades of military dictatorship, war, poverty and pariah status to find some very fragile flickers of freedom, now fighting to keep that flame alive.
The other, Hong Kong, an international financial center, one of the world’s most developed and expensive cities and a territory that for decades, though it never enjoyed full democracy, took for granted all the other elements of a free society — freedom of expression, religion, media, association and assembly — finding these freedoms snatched one by one with stunning speed.
Yet despite the differences, there is a common cause.
Both places are fighting a coup — a coup against the will of the people, a coup against the international order, and a coup against promises made and hopes raised.
And both places are fortunate to have courageous, outspoken cardinals — Charles Bo in Myanmar, Joseph Zen in Hong Kong, both of whom happen to be Salesians. Cardinals whom I hope dearly that Pope Francis will listen to carefully.
Having the privilege of knowing both cardinals personally, I am in no doubt what they would be wanting the Church beyond their shores to be doing. They would want us to pray. They would want us to advocate. They would want us to protest for them, even if they are unable to do so themselves. And they would want us, where possible, to pursue peace with justice.
Only the human spirit, the will of the people in both places, and courage on the part of the international community will ensure that both coups fail and that human dignity and liberty are upheld.
It’s surely our job — if we read the Catechism of the Social Doctrine of the Church, as I did when Cardinal Bo gave me a copy just before I was deported from Myanmar a decade ago — to make sure that happens and that liberty prevails once more in both places that are so close to my heart.
Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the co-founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, senior analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organisation CSW, co-founder and deputy chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC). He is the author of six books, including three on Myanmar. He became a Catholic in Myanmar in 2013 and wrote 'From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church' (Gracewing, 2015). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.