Hong Kong erupted in large-scale protests in June 2019, and there are no signs yet of them slowing down. The immediate trigger was a proposed change to extradition laws, but the demands of the protestors over the past seven months have grown wider, presenting foundational challenges to the political life of the territory. Hong Kong was a colony of the British Empire until 1997, when it was returned to China after 155 years. But the retrocession took place under special conditions. The former colony was reconstituted as a special administrative region and was granted special privileges, including a separate legal and economic system. These privileges are meant to be in effect until 2047. It is this framework, popularly known as the “one country, two systems” arrangement, which the protestors do not want to see diluted.
The sustained and largely leaderless resistance by citizens, mostly youth, against political compromises made by legislators in Hong Kong, has the international community transfixed. Many commentators have described the past year as one of global protests, with citizens pushing back against increasingly authoritarian governments around the world. In India, too, the unprecedented demonstrations by citizens opposing the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 and the National Register of Citizens is broadly perceived as a defence of democratic principles. Although not a democracy, Hong Kong is, as a report in Foreign Policy described it, “an unusual example of rights without democracy.”
The proposed extradition law poses an existential threat to the region’s autonomy. The law, if enacted, would allow suspected criminals to be extradited to China, thus putting individuals within the reach of the mainland legal system. Hong Kong, with its independent judiciary, is aligned with international norms and a jurisprudence that favours transparency, in comparison to a mainland judicial system that owes its allegiance to the Communist Party of China. The chief worry with this measure was that the law would be used to target activists and dissidents, allowing them to be deported to the mainland. These fears are not unfounded. In 2015, five Hong Kong booksellers were kidnapped and brought to China on vague charges—including, in one case, a traffic violation. These booksellers sold books about the Chinese leadership that have been banned in the mainland.
Because of the persistence and ferocity of the demonstrations, the bill was suspended a few days after the protests began. By then, however, the demonstrations had morphed into gigantic pro-democracy protests. Broadly four other demands had been appended to the call for the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill, namely—the protests should not be called “riots;” an immediate investigation be conducted into instances of police brutality against protestors; amnesty for those who had been arrested during the protests; and the implementation of complete universal suffrage. More recently, protestors have been holding rallies in solidarity with China’s persecuted Uighur Muslims.
In recent years, the Chinese government has been exerting increasing pressures on the special status Hong Kong enjoys. President Xi Jinping, during a 2017 visit to swear in Hong Kong’s first female chief executive, Carrie Lam, warned that any attempt to threaten China’s “national sovereignty and security” would be “absolutely impermissible.” It appears important to the leaders in Beijing that the protests in Hong Kong should not have spillover effects on the mainland. Many journalists covering the protests have faced brutal attacks by the police. Increasingly, many media houses in Hong Kong are owned by groups with close business and political links to China. A report by the Committee to Protect Journalists stated that local journalists were “concerned that Beijing will retaliate for their critical reporting by blocking them from entering the mainland to work, while international correspondents fear their permission to stay in Hong Kong could be taken away.” According to the CPJ, China had imprisoned 48 journalists by the end of 2019. But despite its best efforts, China is not able to control the narrative.
In an age where digital communication has become the norm, protestors have been using social-media platforms effectively to organise protests. This is not the first time social media has been used to facilitate a political movement in Hong Kong. In 2014, thousands of students participated in what is popularly known as the Umbrella Revolution, to protest an electoral reform that would allow Beijing a hand in choosing Hong Kong’s chief executive. Social media became a force multiplier, galvanising people and getting the word out to the international community in a way that had not been possible before. Protestors used umbrellas to protect themselves against tear gas, and the object soon became a symbol of solidarity, with many sharing pictures of a yellow umbrella online. Several internet users in the mainland who were seen as sympathisers of the protests were detained. This time, protestors are using social-media platforms with a deeper understanding of cybersecurity and surveillance measures. They have largely managed to remain anonymous and not be identified by the authorities, while still organising, galvanising and documenting the rallies online.
The young have a stake in the political life of the city. By the time they reach middle age—2047, when the arrangement expires—Hong Kong might become yet another Chinese city such as Shenzhen or Wuhan, where, beyond the high rises and tangible economic gains, the people are bereft of any way of expressing their grievances. Youth in Hong Kong are exposed to a culture where dissent and freedom of expression is accepted and tolerated. The city is known for its world-renowned educational institutions, such as Hong Kong University, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the City University of Hong Kong and many other private universities with faculties that are global and reflective of a discourse not constrained by a “party line.” Those above 45 years of age are reluctant to be part of the resistance, as many argue that challenging Beijing imposes heavy costs—economically and socially.
Perhaps this generational gap reveals an aspect about a changed political order, where the young have come of age in a globalised Hong Kong, with far more liberal values and exposure to the ideals of democracy. They are not willing to see their social and political freedoms whittled down. The piecemeal sundering of established laws signals to young Hong Kong protestors a future in which they might be forced to submit to greater authoritarianism. Before they reach that point, they are asking for more from the existing electoral system.Perhaps this generational gap reveals an aspect about a changed political order, where the young have come of age in a globalised Hong Kong, with far more liberal values and exposure to the ideals of democracy. They are not willing to see their social and political freedoms whittled down.
Residents of Hong Kong have limited ability to vote for their own local assembly. The Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, or LegCo, is a unicameral institution with 70 members, of whom 35 are directly elected from five geographical constituencies—Hong Kong Island, Kowloon West, Kowloon East, New Territories West and New Territories East. The remaining members are indirectly elected through “functional constituencies,” which consist of interest groups that take their directions from Beijing for the most part. People in Hong Kong perceive the “indirectly elected” to be representing and reflecting the interests of the mainland, since many of them are leading businessmen with financial stakes in the mainland, coupled with personal relations with the Communist party elite since the days of the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who categorised economic reforms as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Under Deng, the country’s economic agenda had greater primacy over national security and geopolitical interests. When China opened up its economy to foreign capital and technology, it was Hong Kong that played a seminal role in the process and emerged as a fulcrum to China’s plan of economical transformation. Hong Kong has since emerged as a hub of financial entrepreneurs, international banking conglomerates and legal experts, and has a thriving port.
What happens in Hong Kong matters to the rest of the world. The city is one of Asia’s key financial centres. Countries such as the United States, Japan and Australia are keeping an eye on developments in the city since the South China Sea is of immense strategic importance. The recent protests in Hong Kong have encouraged Singapore to appeal to merchant bankers to shift their resources and portfolios from Hong Kong to the Southeast Asian entrepot state where there is currently more political stability. Hong Kong faces an economic recession, its first since the 2009 global recession.
And yet, pro-democracy parties won in recent elections to the LegCo. This has been understood broadly as a sign of wide support for the protest movement and the one country, two system arrangement. The protests are also giving a fillip to activism abroad, where citizens of different countries are fighting for democratic values. This makes Hong Kong an exemplar of modernisation and the processes of globalisation, a place to watch as the lack of an identifiable opposition leader or party to lead the unremitting protests confounds political theorists and challenges established ideas of democracy.
JOINT OPEN LETTER – ARREST OF HUMAN RIGHTS MONITORS IN BREACH OF THE HONG KONG GOVERNMENT’S INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS OBLIGATIONS
24 human rights organizations issue open letter to HK chief executive to accuse the govt of breaching of international human rights obligations. 5 observers were arbitrarily arrested by police force whilst conducting their work of monitoring assemblies.
Human rights groups call on Hong Kong gov’t to respect and protect protest observers
Categories: Hong Kong Update