Hong Kong's rising tide against rights erosion

After more than 20 years since handover, China needs to loosen grip and open door to democratic reform
Hong Kong's rising tide against rights erosion

A protester shouts in front of police outside government headquarters after the annual flag raising ceremony to mark the 22nd anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China, in Hong Kong on July 1. (Photo by Philip Fong/AFP)

Twenty-two years ago today, the last British colonial governor, together with the Prince of Wales, sailed out of Hong Kong, handing the territory over to Chinese rule.

Just over two months later, I flew into Hong Kong to begin my first job after graduation, as a journalist. I spent the first five years of Chinese sovereignty and the first five years of my working life in the city, and when I left in 2002 I did so optimistic that the principle upon which Hong Kong had been handed to China — “one country, two systems,” a high degree of autonomy, and the protection of Hong Kong’s freedoms — was intact.

Today, I am more deeply worried about Hong Kong than I have ever been.

When I left in 2002, I don’t recall people being jailed for peaceful protest, or disqualified from assuming or contesting a seat in the legislature because of their political beliefs, or people being abducted and disappearing into detention in the mainland, or academic freedom being threatened, or foreign journalists and activists denied entry or expelled.

I also don’t remember people being criminalized for being perceived to insult the national anthem, or Hong Kongers seeking asylum abroad, or rubber bullets, pepper spray, teargas and batons.

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Nor do I recall any march of a million people, let alone a march of two million. And I definitely never heard anyone advocating independence.

Yet over the past five years, all of the above have become a reality in Hong Kong. And the city is now at a crossroads.

Does Hong Kong have any chance of salvaging the situation, redeeming “one country, two systems,” protecting its few remaining basic freedoms? Or has it now crossed the Rubicon, which will turn it into just another Chinese city?

Do Hong Kong’s freedoms, the rule of law and autonomy matter to the world, or is Hong Kong no longer the international financial centre and regional trading hub it was?

Do China’s obligations in an international treaty, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, agreed in 1984 between Margaret Thatcher and Zhao Ziyang and lodged at the United Nations, valid until 2047, matter anymore, or is the world just going to allow China to rip up and trample all over them? And if so, what does that say about China’s reliability in the international rules-based order?

And yet, just when the hopes raised by the inspiring scenes of the Umbrella Movement five years ago appeared to have been quashed, their leaders jailed or cowed, and Hong Kong seemed poised to implement a new extradition law that would tear apart the “firewall” between the city’s independent judicial system and the mainland’s, facilitating the extradition of criminals — including potentially foreigners in transit as well as Hong Kong activists and businesspeople accused of corruption — from a city that prides itself on the rule of law to a judiciary based on rule by law, with no independence, no possibility of fair trial, which operates by torture, forced confession — often televised — and execution, at that very moment the brave, ordinary, remarkable people of Hong Kong stood up again.

What is different this time is that almost the whole of Hong Kong spoke out.

Nearly a third of the population took to the streets, and millions more supported them. Over 100 businesses closed on June 12 to allow their employees to march.

Chambers of commerce spoke out, lawyers and judges marched. Many more businesspeople spoke out privately. Pro-Beijing legislators called for the withdrawal of the bill.

Christians praying and singing turned a little chorus — “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” — into an anthem for the entire movement, regardless of faith.

Never before has any issue brought together the business community, the legal sector, the pro-democracy movement in all its diversity, ordinary people — teachers, housewives, mothers, students. And finally, in the face of such momentous domestic pressure, and considerable international protest too, including from the United States Secretary of State, the European Union, the British and Canadian foreign ministers and parliamentarians around the world, the Hong Kong government backed down. Partially.

The question now is where does it go next?

The immediate priority, which Hong Kongers seek, and the international community must support, is a complete withdrawal of the extradition law.

The bill must be declared completely dead, off the table, no chance of return. It must be the Monty Python dead parrot.

Secondly, there must be, as British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and major human rights organizations have called for, a robust independent inquiry into police brutality during some of the protests.

But thirdly, this is now the moment to ask some fundamental questions about Hong Kong’s system. If Beijing and the Hong Kong establishment want to avoid having millions on the streets in future, they need to consider their options.

Do they want another Tiananmen, in “Asia’s world city”, in full view of the world? Are they prepared for another ‘Occupy’ movement and all the disruption and embarrassment that will involve?

If they want neither of those options, then they need to review the question of democratic reform — promised in the Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

China would normally be nervous of such talk, wary that such ideas could spread to the mainland. But in all honesty scenes of millions marching — repeatedly — are more likely to stir dissent in the mainland, and no matter how hard they try to block them, the images will filter through.

From Beijing’s point of view, allowing some democratic reform in Hong Kong — and backing off the erosion of autonomy — would do Xi Jinping some favors.

With the trade war with the United States and increasing scrutiny of mass atrocities in Xinjiang, does he really want the Hong Kong headache?

The anniversary of the handover falls in a year of anniversaries — the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, the 20th anniversary of the crackdown on Falun Gong, the fifth anniversary of the Umbrella Movement and the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

As the people of Hong Kong raise a torch for liberty, do Carrie Lam and Xi Jinping really want to have blood on their hands, or might they find that democratic reform is the safety valve that at least provides some aspirin for a headache they both could do without?

The question for them is do they hear the people sing, and will they sing hallelujah to the Lord, or not? July 1 is carpe diem time.

Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.com.

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