Hong Kong’s eroding freedoms
Beijing is ratcheting up its efforts to strangle Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. What’s at stake?
Why is there a conflict?
China has reneged on its promise to give Hong Kong a high degree of political and economic autonomy under the policy of “one country, two systems.” The latest assault on the city’s independence is a new law, rammed through by the Beijing-imposed chief executive, Carrie Lam, that would give China some control over Hong Kong’s justice system. This extradition law would enable Beijing to pressure Hong Kong authorities to transfer certain suspects to mainland China—where the Kafkaesque court system uses forced confessions and closed trials to find 99 percent of defendants guilty. Beijing says the law is necessary to prevent Hong Kong from becoming a “haven for fugitives.” But critics say that it would render everyone, including Hong Kong residents and foreign businesspeople and tourists, susceptible to Beijing’s arbitrary justice. (See box.) That prospect sent more than 100,000 protesters into the streets in April, and another demonstration is planned for June 9. “There is a lot of fear that once the extradition law is passed, we won’t be able to come out to protest on the streets,” demonstrator Cindy Cheng told the Financial Times. “We’re worried they will use facial recognition to identify us and charge us.”
What does China fear?
Any challenge to its authority. To maintain strict Communist Party control of its vast, modernizing nation, the increasingly authoritarian government in Beijing is cracking down on dissent and independent thought. Originally, when Britain and China were negotiating over how the bustling British colony would revert to Chinese rule in 1997, Beijing indicated that Hong Kong would have a special degree of autonomy. But China’s rulers were deeply alarmed by the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and when they drew up the Basic Law, the Hong Kong constitution, in 1990, they did not include direct democracy. Instead, they created an Election Committee—packed with pro-Beijing representatives—to select the Hong Kong chief executive, who is the equivalent of a governor. The legislature is only partly democratic, with half the lawmakers elected by the people. Direct democracy to elect Hong Kong’s leaders was supposed to be gradually introduced, but in 2014 Beijing announced that when people could finally vote directly they could choose only among two or three candidates selected by the Beijing-dominated committee. That prompted the student uprising known as the Umbrella Movement.
What was this movement?
Inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S., three activists—Chu Yiu-ming, Benny Tai, and Chan Kin-man—took over Hong Kong’s downtown to demand true democracy. Tens of thousands of people turned out to block roads in the heart of the city for three months. Many wore yellow, and many more carried umbrellas, at first to shield themselves from the tear gas and pepper spray police were using, and later as a symbol of their protest. The protest ended with many arrests and no concessions from authorities, and the crackdown is still continuing. In April, the three leaders were sentenced to 16 months in prison each. (Chu, 75, had his sentence suspended.)
What else have authorities done?
After the protest broke up, Hong Kong officials prosecuted dozens of pro-democracy activists, including 16 elected lawmakers. Six other lawmakers had their elections nullified on dubious grounds, giving Lam a pro-Beijing majority in the legislature. In 2015, agents from the mainland kidnapped five Hong Kong booksellers and forced them to confess to selling banned books. Last fall, pressured by Beijing, the Hong Kong government banned a pro-independence political party.
What freedoms do Hong Kongers still enjoy?
Hong Kong is a powerhouse of international finance, with a thriving community of foreign businesspeople. It has a vigorous free press, and unlike on the mainland, its 7 million people have the right to demonstrate. Hong Kongers have their own passports. Residents of the city are not subject to China’s oppressive “social credit” system, which assesses each citizen’s trustworthiness with a numerical score and denies travel and other privileges to those who don’t measure up. But the boundary between Hong Kong and the mainland is beginning to blur, as Beijing builds physical connections to Hong Kong Island.
Why is it doing that?
To make a symbolic statement that Hong Kong is not truly separate. Last fall, authorities opened a 34-mile series of bridges and tunnels linking the big island with mainland China and semi-autonomous Macau. It also built a high-speed rail terminal to connect Hong Kong with the mainland cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou. Democracy activists vow to continue to fight for the proud city’s independence, but Fenella Sung, coordinator of the expatriate group Friends of Hong Kong, says China casts an increasingly dark shadow. “People are very concerned about their freedom of expression, because no one can tell you where the red line is,” Sung says. “You’re always under fear. Hong Kong is dying.”
Taiwan’s extradition fears
The impetus for the proposed extradition law was the case of a Hong Kong man suspected of killing his girlfriend in Taiwan. Taiwan’s sovereign government asked Hong Kong to extradite him to stand trial there. But that request backfired, giving China an excuse to force through a law that would compel Hong Kong to extradite suspects to other nations—including mainland China. Taipei fears that the proposed law would put Taiwanese visitors and residents in Hong Kong at risk of being sent to the mainland for prosecution; as a result, a Taiwan government spokesman said Taiwan would rather have no extradition measure than one that could subject its people to Chinese authority. Taipei wants the “relevant suspect to face justice,” said Chiu Chui-cheng, the deputy minister of the island’s Mainland Affairs Council. But “we have to ask whether the amendment proposed by the Hong Kong government is politically motivated.” Under the extradition bill, foreigners working in Hong Kong could also be sent to China for trial, on spurious charges of spying or banned political activities—a prospect that alarms the U.S. About 85,000 Americans are currently working and living in Hong Kong. ■