Hong Kong leader turns deaf ear to people's cries

Police brutality towards protesters with legitimate concerns shows that this a battle the world cannot afford to lose
Hong Kong leader turns deaf ear to people's cries

Protesters run after police fired tear gas during a rally against an extradition bill outside the Hong Kong government's headquarters on June 12. Violent clashes broke out in a show of strength against plans to allow extraditions to China. (Photo by Philip Fong/AFP)

The cry could not be clearer, louder, more united or more consistent. From the million people who took to the streets of Hong Kong last Sunday to the European Union’s demarche, from the International Chamber of Commerce’s statement to the silent march by lawyers, from judges and lawyers to the Catholic Church, everyone, everywhere, except for the tyrants in Beijing and their stooges in the Hong Kong government, is outraged by the proposed extradition law.

The British government, which still has responsibilities to speak out for Hong Kong under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, says it is “unequivocal” in its opposition.

And now the outcry is at the Hong Kong government’s refusal to listen and the Hong Kong police force’s appalling brutality. Yesterday’s protests were met with completely disproportionate violence by the police. Women holding umbrellas were pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed at close range. An entirely peaceful woman remonstrating with the police was threatened with batons. Christians singing hymns and praying faced police with riot shields. A man already on the ground was savagely beaten. People were hit with rubber bullets. Over 70 people have been hospitalized. This is an outrage.

From Sunday night until Tuesday night, over 36 hours, I went on a fast and a hunger strike for Hong Kong. I broke my fast in Speaker’s House in the mother of parliaments at a dinner hosted by the Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow, at which the former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who had overseen the final preparations of the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, was our keynote speaker.

We were also joined by a Hong Kong pianist who performed the Umbrella Movement’s anthems including Do You Hear the People Sing? in the heart of the British parliament. It followed an urgent question and an adjournment debate in the House of Commons and an urgent question in the House of Lords, and this passionate article by Alistair Carmichael MP. It preceded a question in the House of Lords on Wednesday, tabled by Lord Alton of Liverpool.

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I use the terms “fast” and “hunger strike” deliberately because they have different meanings. “Fast” because it is spiritual and implies — indeed involves — prayer, something in which I passionately believe. “Hunger strike” because it is political and implies — indeed involves — protest, something in which I passionately believe.

I handed the baton on to the PEN organization in Hong Kong, which then launched a 24-hour hunger strike. And more than 100 businesses closed to allow their employees to join protests yesterday.

And why? Because I am appalled, outraged and horrified by the proposed extradition law which Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam insists on pushing.

Carrie Lam, it appears, refuses to heed the warnings of the European Union, which recently issued a demarche — the highest form of official diplomatic protest — to the Hong Kong government.

She refuses to listen to United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, the Canadian foreign minister and dozens of parliamentarians who have all spoken out.

She insists on proceeding with this law despite the concerns of the business community, especially the International Chamber of Commerce and the American Chamber of Commerce, the judges and lawyers who marched in protest, the Hong Kong Bar Association and the Law Society.

She refuses to listen to the Catholic Church’s appeal to at least delay and not rush the legislation.

And she refuses to hear the Hong Kong people, over a million of whom marched last Sunday against her proposals.

No protest on anything remotely resembling that scale has occurred for many years, perhaps since the marches in solidarity with the pro-democracy movement in China in 1989, in protest at the Tiananmen massacre or against the Article 23 legislation in 2003. So when a million Hong Kongers march, one ought to listen.

Over the past few years, there are many things that I did not expect to have to do — or to see. I lived in Hong Kong for the first five years after the handover, from 1997 to 2002, when I worked as a journalist, and by and large during that time Hong Kong’s freedoms were secure, “one country, two systems” functioned well and when I left in 2002, although I noticed some subtle challenges, I thought generally Hong Kong was doing well.

From the time I left in 2002 until the Umbrella Movement in 2014, with the blip of the Article 23 protests in 2003, I basically stopped following political developments in Hong Kong. I had bigger concerns: human rights in mainland China, North Korea and Myanmar and religious intolerance in Pakistan, Indonesia and elsewhere in the region. I thought Hong Kong was OK, and I left my friends to get on with their lives.

It was only when I saw the images of thousands of yellow umbrellas and heard the lyrics of Do You Hear the People Sing? in 2014 that I realized that something had changed.

Over the past five years, a reawakening became a trickle and then a passion. I wrote the odd op-ed, and then I organized a few meetings for the occasional Hong Kong visitor to London, and then I realized there was a need for more, and so — together with others — I co-founded Hong Kong Watch. In the meantime I tried to visit Hong Kong and, just because I had said one or two things in support of the voices of democracy in the city, I found myself denied entry to the city I had once called home, in October 2017.

Since my own denial of entry, the much more prominent case of Financial Times editor Victor Mallet raised global concerns. And that was preceded by the disqualification of pro-democracy legislators and candidates and the imprisonment of activists. And of course, back in 2015, there were the mysterious disappearances of the Hong Kong booksellers.

I recently spent three hours with one of the booksellers, Lam Wing-kee, who has fled to Taipei. He told me his story, and he emphasized that if the proposed extradition law goes through, it amounts to “a death sentence” for Hong Kong.

With the weight of evidence, I cannot understand why a woman who has been schooled in a professional civil service all her working life would fail to understand the implications of proceeding as planned with the extradition proposals. Except perhaps I can. I guess Carrie Lam is at heart a bureaucrat, not a politician, and thus is schooled in the art of following her political masters, rather than listening to the people. Whereas her predecessor Anson Chan showed a remarkable affinity to the people and a proper dexterity politically, Lam has a tin ear to anything other than her masters’ voice.

One would have thought that the voices of the U.S., EU, Britain, Canada and other governments, parliamentarians around the world, the business and legal communities and over a million Hong Kongers on the streets should change that. But it appears Carrie Lam and the regime in Beijing are prepared to sacrifice Hong Kong’s reputation and economy so that the Chinese Communist Party can get its hands on those in Hong Kong that it dislikes.

That’s why I fasted and went on hunger strike. I don’t want to be at risk of extradition even if I am ever allowed back to Hong Kong, or in transit through the airport — and, more importantly, I don’t ever want any of my friends to be extradited from a place that prides itself on the rule of law to a country where there is only rule by law.

But I never expected to see the day when bullets would fly in Hong Kong. They may have only been rubber bullets, but one person was shot in the eye and others were hit. By rubber bullets, batons, beanbags, pepper spray and tear gas, more than 70 people have ended up in hospital thanks to the police. That was never the Hong Kong I knew.

By hosting a dinner for Hong Kong Watch, the night before the territory’s streets became a battlefield, the speaker of the House of Commons showed that the British parliament stands by Hong Kong. By delivering the keynote speech at the dinner while protests continue, Britain’s former foreign secretary shows that Britain stands by Hong Kong. By speaking in debates, parliamentarians of all parties in both houses show that Britain stands by Hong Kong. This is a fight that not only Hong Kong but also the world cannot afford to lose.

Benedict Rogers is the founder and chairman of Hong Kong Watch.

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