A protester shouts in front of police outside the Hong Kong government's headquarters after the annual flag-raising ceremony to mark the 22nd anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China on July 1, 2019. (Photo: AFP)
History is repeating itself in Hong Kong. In 2003, after the SARS epidemic, attempts were made to introduce a national security law. Similarly, it is happening now as the coronavirus recedes. But this time we fear there will be no happy ending.
It is difficult to find words that we have not already written to tell about the danger Hong Kong is facing. For some, we are alarmists: the tanks have not been seen in Hong Kong, and therefore we can think that things have not got out of hand. The world has its head elsewhere, and we seem repetitive.
On May 18, 15 well-known leaders of the democratic opposition appeared in court. Their case will be resumed on June 15. For five of them, including our friend Lee Cheuk-yan, the charges have been extended, and they foresee very severe penalties, up to five years of imprisonment.
But the worst news comes from Beijing, where the National People's Congress has been formally endorsing what has already been decided by the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the real body that governs China. But even the Central Committee (politburo) counts less since President Xi Jinping concentrated all powers on himself, as only Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping had done in the past. It is therefore a decision by Xi that we are talking about.
A bill has been introduced that sends a chill down the backs of those who love Hong Kong, its young students and its people, freedom and democracy. The new law introduces national security regulations in Hong Kong. It will be included as a new "third annex" to the Basic Law, the mini-constitution that governs the "high degree of autonomy" of the city.
The law, which consists of seven articles, provides provisions punishing offenses such as treason, secession, sedition, subversion and foreign interference. It is not difficult to imagine how the provisions will be conveniently used to suppress the popular protests that began in June 2019 and any other form of opposition. With such laws in China, every form of dissent is condemned, with punishments up to the death penalty.
Particularly disturbing is the fourth article: "If necessary, the central government will establish bodies in Hong Kong with the task of implementing the safeguarding of national security."
This provision would lead to the emptying of the power of parliament and of the local government in favor of an entirely political office, which has never been seen in Hong Kong. The drastic downsizing of the parliament is particularly concerning because in the elections due in September the opposition parties will have, according to all forecasts, a larger representation, as happened for the district elections of last November.
It will be the end of the "one country, two systems" framework and the "high degree of autonomy," the two principles that govern Hong Kong today. We will have important tests in the coming weeks: the vigil for the massacre in Tiananmen Square on June 4; the first anniversary of the start of the protests on June 9; and the traditional protest march of July 1. Can they be done? And how?
In the summer of 2003, as many certainly remember, attempts were made to introduce a national security law. And it happened in the aftermath of the SARS epidemic. But the then chief executive, the Beijing-appointed Tung Chee-hwa, withdrew the proposal after a single mass demonstration on July 1 of that fateful year. Various ministers resigned, and Tung himself paid the political price with his early departure from the political scene — a choice that restored some dignity to the man. And Hong Kong, for many more years, was saved.
Today's government, led by Carrie Lam, has faced hundreds of demonstrations, most of them more immense than that of July 1, 2003. There has been a new pandemic, and plans are back to introduce a liberticidal law that will not only prevent Hong Kong from having what it was promised — a progressive and full democratization — but would also remove what it already has now.
Lam rushed to say that the Hong Kong government will "fully cooperate" in the implementation of this law. The education minister says students will have to study it well. There is a shiver! Carrie Lam, I am writing it with pain, will go down in Hong Kong history as the single political figure that has done the most damage ever.
Allan Lee, a long-time politician from the business world, founder of the Liberal Party and part of the pro-Chinese camp (he had been a communist as a boy), recently died. He was perhaps little known internationally but in Hong Kong he was a familiar face.
I remember him well. He had the good of Hong Kong at heart: after the demonstration on July 1, 2003, he pledged to persuade Beijing to desist from the implementation of the national security law. He had courage. He was heard. And Allan Lee, who in the meantime had become a moderate right-wing man, spent the last years of his life asking for full democracy and freedom for Hong Kong.
Today the pro-government camp lacks men with Allan Lee's wisdom. In power today we have figures without political dignity and without courage, opportunists enslaved to the power of the strongest. It is not true that democracy in Hong Kong is only wanted by "reckless young people" and "opponents without a sense of responsibility." Hong Kong's democracy and freedom are a serious matter, desired by the best people of our beloved city.
After all, it is not difficult too difficult to understand what’s going on. Things are what they seem. The threats of a regime opposed to freedom, democracy and human rights are not intended to strike emptily. As long as possible, we will say it: the end of Hong Kong is being prepared.
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.