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Benedict Rogers

'We are Pyongyang with better lighting'

It's not the death of Kim Jong-il that we should mourn; it's the death of Hong Kong's freedom
Published: December 20, 2021 04:00 AM GMT

Updated: December 20, 2021 04:00 AM GMT

'We are Pyongyang with better lighting'

People bow as they pay their respects before portraits of late North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il to mark the 10th anniversary of the death of Kim Jong-il, the father of current leader Kim Jong-un, in Pyongyang on Dec. 17. (Photo: AFP/KCNA VIA KNS) 

Three days ago, North Korea began 11 days of mourning to mark the 10th anniversary of the death of Kim Jong-il. The regime announced that laughing, alcohol and leisure activities are banned during this period.

At the same time, a court in Hong Kong issued arrest warrants for exiled former pro-democracy legislators Nathan Law and Ted Hui, along with five others abroad, for the crime of urging Hong Kongers to boycott elections to the city’s Legislative Council or spoil their ballot papers. Previously, the Hong Kong government threatened The Wall Street Journal and The Sunday Times for editorials along the same lines.

Yesterday Hong Kong held completely fraudulent, farcical, sham elections for its legislature, with the results pre-determined by the regime in Beijing. Not surprisingly, voter turnout was the lowest ever since the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China. As polls closed last night, turnout was just below 30 percent.

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Hong Kongers are not stupid. They won’t legitimize a process that is totally illegitimate — though, wisely and amusingly, they did make use of the government’s offer of free public transport for the day, a ridiculously idiotic attempt by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, a Catholic, to try to bribe the populace into participating in the fake ballot. Hong Kongers are clever — they took up the offer of a free bus or train ride but decided not to waste their time casting a vote not worth the paper it is written on.

It is not worth commenting on the results, but it is important to highlight the appalling system, which has turned a semi-democratic and decent Legislative Council — capable of doing what a legislature should do, including robust debate, thorough scrutiny of legislature and holding the executive accountable — into a wholly owned rubber-stamp subsidiary of Beijing’s National People’s Congress.

Under the Chinese Communist Party’s new electoral system imposed on Hong Kong, the number of Beijing-appointed seats has increased, the number of directly elected seats reduced, and all candidates must swear an oath of allegiance to Xi Jinping’s regime. As a result, pro-democracy candidates were prevented from contesting the election — and, indeed, 47 pro-democracy activists, including former legislators, have been behind bars since January.

If you had said to me even a few years ago that parallels between Hong Kong and North Korea would emerge, I would have told you not to be so silly

Mainland China residents were given the vote, and scenes of voting taking place at the border with Shenzhen, with seemingly no verification of voters’ identity, exposed to the world just how blatantly farcical this election is. It is the latest chapter in Hong Kong’s rapid, dystopian slide from the most open city in Asia to one of the region’s most repressed.

If you had said to me even a few years ago that parallels between Hong Kong and North Korea would emerge, I would have told you not to be so silly. I have visited Pyongyang, met dozens of North Korean escapees from the regime’s prison camps, and helped lead the campaign for a United Nations Commission of Inquiry into crimes against humanity in North Korea. For more than a decade, I have been immersed in the horrors of what is surely the world’s most repressive totalitarian regime, and the idea that there could be any comparison with Hong Kong was until recently risible.

Indeed, when I lived in Hong Kong, for the first five years after the handover, I began to get involved in the human rights crisis in North Korea as well as Myanmar, Timor-Leste and other parts of Asia. I organized and led protests in Hong Kong for Timor-Leste during the carnage unleashed by the Indonesian military in the immediate aftermath of the 1999 referendum, I led church groups on visits to Timor-Leste during its transition to independence and to refugees on the Thailand-Myanmar border, and I met journalists and humanitarian aid workers who had been in North Korea.

Hong Kong was a hub for journalism and activism for the rest of the region. It never would have occurred to me then that the day would come when I would be protesting and advocating for Hong Kong in the face of ever-increasing repression.

Yet although Hong Kong does not yet have firing squads, execution grounds and concentration camps, the crackdown by Beijing, the complicity of Hong Kong government quislings, proxies and zombies in that repression, and the absurd statements coming out of the mouths of supposedly educated officials are increasingly reminiscent of North Korea.

The difference is a matter of degree. As Lord Alton tweeted last week: “In Hong Kong they now put you in prison for having lit a candle at a vigil, and in North Korea they execute you, and then mutilate your body, for watching a forbidden video. Never take our liberty and our freedom for granted.”

It’s not the death of Kim Jong-il that we should mourn; it’s the death of Hong Kong’s freedom, the continued repression by Kim Jong-un in North Korea, and the increasing parallels between the two

One similarity is the closing of space and direct contact. Although I have visited North Korea, I have never been able to have direct contact with any North Korean inside the country from abroad. To do so would be putting their lives at risk. Instead, I am reliant on the testimonies of those who have escaped from the country, some foreigners who are still able to live and work or visit the country, and media reports.

With Hong Kong, however, it was an entirely different matter — until 18 months ago. Until the imposition of the draconian national security law on Hong Kong, I was in daily contact with people in the city which had once been my home. I could consult them, verify information with them and receive updates from them. More importantly, they could talk directly to parliamentarians, policymakers and media around the world. They could speak for themselves.

Not anymore. Because the national security law has a clause that criminalizes contact with foreign political forces — which it terms “collusion” — my contact with people inside Hong Kong has almost entirely stopped. Most of my contacts are either in prison or in exile, and those that aren’t are understandably keeping their heads down. I do not want to endanger anyone. So now, with Hong Kong as with North Korea, I rely on contact with those who have escaped.

On the eve of Hong Kong’s “selections,” as I prefer to call them, I tweeted an article about the ban on laughter in North Korea with these words: “In Hong Kong, it’s a crime to discourage people from voting in the CCP’s sham elections (one I have committed multiple times recently). In North Korea, it’s now a crime to laugh. I never thought I’d see a parallel between #HK & #NK but now I do.”

A Hong Konger replied within minutes: “We are Pyongyang with better lighting, Benedict.”

A few years ago, I would have dismissed such a remark as stupid exaggeration. Now, it has a ring of truth to it. It’s not the death of Kim Jong-il that we should mourn; it’s the death of Hong Kong’s freedom, the continued repression by Kim Jong-un in North Korea, and the increasing parallels between the two.

* 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,  co-founder of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and a board member of the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign. He is the author of six books, and his faith journey is told in his book “From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church” (Gracewing, 2015).

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