Hong Kong is at the mercy of the People’s Republic of China – democratic aspirations have failed. Considering the scale of the tragedy, the response in the global west is disappointing; downright outrageous. This is why we have to remember Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s history is marked by the tragedy of disappointed, formerly justified hope – Hong Kong is running out of opportunities. The Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (henceforth PRC) was supposed to be granted relative autonomy under the doctrine of “1 Country – 2 Systems”. But since the “controversial” Security Law instituted by the PRC went into effect, Hong Kong hast has been in even more turmoil than usual. Despite shameful inaction, the German federal government has at least terminated the extradition treaty with the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and joined other countries in denouncing the PRC.
A different perspective
The tragedy might not be clear to everyone. It arises from the ups and downs of a rocky road to democracy. As Germans, we take democratic conditions in some places and undemocratic conditions elsewhere for granted – at least more so than we realize or care to admit. We may debate whether the right-wing populist party AfD poses a threat to German democracy, but we do not assume our basic democratic order to collapse soon. On the other hand, we don’t really assume Xi Jinping to abdicate in the next few months and give way to a truly democratic, unified China. But Hong Kong, the “fragrant haven” located between the “Las Vegas of the East”, Macau, and the “Silicon Valley of the PRC,”, Shenzhen, has been on a nebulous path for 24 years: prosperity, democracy, and freedom always within reach, but an ultimatum looming on the horizon.
Since the 17th century, Hong Kong had been a trading post for the British East India Company. During the first Opium War in the mid-19th century, Hong Kong was first occupied as a critical port and then became a British colony. The colony was rigorously exploited and oppressed until World War II. Japanese occupation, conflicts between Britain and the PRC, restoration of colonial rule and deadly riots followed. In 1982, negotiations concerning the future of the territory started. Since the PRC did not want to recognize Hong Kong as British territory and a United Nations resolution mandated the territory to be returned to the PRC, the doctrine of “1 country, 2 systems” was signed in 1984. In 1997, Hong Kong was to be handed over to the People’s Republic as a special administrative region. In 1994 the british governor established the future electoral system. Hong Kong’s democratic market economy system was to remain in place for at least another 50 years alongside the authoritarian-socialist system of the PRC. A city as poster child of liberal, Western values at the gates of authoritarianism.
Hong Kong’s democratic aspirations began in the early 1960s. Efforts to hold free elections failed. The first elections were held in 1997 based on Hong Kong’s young constitution – the Hong Kong Basic Law. Unfortunately, there is no other way to put it: the former colonial rulers made an absolute blunder when drawing up the Basic Law. To retain some influence after returning the territory to the PRC, not every citizen was given equal voting rights. Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) consists of 70 delegates. Only half of them elected by Hong Kong’s whole population. The remaining 35 deputies are determined by 28 specific professional groups, such as teachers and big businesses.
This inane “semi-democratic” arrangement originally secured some influence for Britain but little of it remains today. Britain’s influence has given way to multinational conglomerates – and the PRC. In any case, voting sectors include gastronomy, airlines and above all the financial sector which accounts for 130 votes. These are not divided among 130 voters but 125. Sure: Lobbying plays an important role in any democracy but this is as grotesque as it gets. An amendment to the electoral law was intended for 2017 but it was defeated by a vote of 28 to 8.
Hong Kong has always been, and still is, plagued by many problems – a rich country, a city with a cost of living on par with Dubai. A city where 1.3 million inhabitants (as of 2017) are referred to as “cage people” – people whose political influence, as well as their living space which averages two cubic meters, cannot be compared to that of wealthier Hong Kong residents. Human beings whose fate is to a considerable extent decided by large companies, which have their headquarters in Paris (Axa) or London (HSBC). People whose Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, was not elected by the citizens of Hong Kong, but by an election committee in Beijing.
The Umbrella Movement
The protests, whose coverage and images have haunted us for years, can be traced back to Beijing’s meddling in 2014 and Hong Kong’s miserable electoral system. The Umbrella Movement, often mistakenly referred to as the “Umbrella Revolution,” was Hong Kong’s best-known protest movement to date and kept the country on its toes throughout 2014. The movement was named after the umbrellas which protesters carried to protect themselves against polices heavy use of pepper spray. Peaceful Protest was the top priority of the Umbrella Movement. Thus, demonstrators carried apologies to residents of occupied squares in addition to the usual banners.
A revolution was never their goal: On October 24th 2014, supporters scaled a mountain above Hong Kong and produced a banner reading “We want a real universal electoral law ” – it was quickly removed by the government. That same year Joshua Wong, then 16, joined Nathan Law, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam in founding the Demosisto (Chinese: “Stand for the People”) party – directly opposing Carrie Lam. The party’s central aspiration: complete independence for Hong Kong at the end of the “1 country, 2 systems” decree in 2047.
In the 2016 LegCo elections, Nathan Law entered parliament as an MP for Demosisto, but was found guilty of having led the (peaceful!) protests in 2014 by the Hong Kong judiciary – as was Joshua Wong. With a new conviction in 2017 and subsequent clashes with the Hong Kong judiciary, he lost his mandate.
2019 – The so-called “Extradition Law”
Meanwhile, Lam’s pro-Beijing government took every opportunity to drive Hong Kong further into the arms of the People’s Republic. They succeeded – Beijing grip is firmly closed around Hong Kong’s neck. Ultimately, this circumstance can be traced back to a murder. A young citizen of Hong Kong had murdered his girlfriend while on vacation in the Republic of China (Taiwan). He even confessed the murder to the authorities in Hong Kong. The lack of a mutual legal assistance or extradition treaties between Hong Kong and the Republic of China tied the hands of Hong Kong’s law enforcement agencies. Public outrage was enormous.
Lam’s government took the opportunity and used the failed conviction to justify an extradition law – extradition however, not to the Republic of China but to the PRC. The ensuing protests were the largest since 2014. The concern was for Hong Kong’s legal system, which was unjust at times but at least independent and quite liberal, to fall in to the hands of the PRC.
From June 2019 to January 2020, millions of citizens rallied weekly on the streets of Hong Kong. In addition to the withdrawal of the Extradition Law, the protesters demanded free elections of parliament and government leaders – like the Umbrella Movement had before. They also demanded the release of all detained protesters, and an independent investigation into the security authorities’ actions. “Paradoxically,” the security authorities’ actions against the peaceful demonstrators, led to ever-increasing escalation: deaths, injuries and civil war-like conditions.
Although Carrie Lam withdrew the draft of the extradition law in September 2019, the demonstrations continued. The polices extremely violent crackdown on the protesters using water cannons and rubber bullets had Hong Kong’s citizens in fear. They were afraid of losing their freedom of expression and assembly. Often demonstrators did not even visit hospitals when injured. People feared the police might look into patient records. Meanwhile, PRC state media dared demonstrators not to stage further protests: “Hong Kong is an inseparable part of the PRC. Any resistance will be crushed.”
Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators continued to pour onto the streets in the following months. In the local elections in November 2019, the Pan Democratic Party, affiliated with the protesters, gained 85% – from 124 to 388 seats. After a relatively quiet December and more turbulent January, the city somewhat calmed down due to the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. Keep in mind – all these protests were in response to the Extradition Law. The fragrant port’s gloom in these days is due to the so-called Security Law.
2020 – The so-called “Security Law“
In 2003, the government in Hong Kong made a first attempt to enact a security law but failed. Since then, the idea and the fear of such a law always haunted the city. 17 years later it was merely a fading fairytale. A fairy tale which manifested as an eerie reality just over half a year ago.
In May 2019, the People’s Republics Communist Party announced a security law for Hong Kong. Carrie Lam commented how delighted she was: The national security law would be exactly what Hong Kong needed – without ever having read it herself. A law established in complete disregard of any elected representatives. An incredibly vaguely worded law, which renders any expression, any conduct which could be construed as “subversive, separatist, and terrorist” towards the PRC highly punishable. Yes, primarily towards the PRC, Hong Kong is but an afterthought in this law, allowing the PRC to deploy troops in Hong Kong and authorizing them to “investigate”. A law heralded in the National Congress as follows: “The National Security Law is the sword of Damocles over Hong Kong’s head.”
Only moments after the law’s announcement, social media accounts and messages were deleted . Ties to the free press were cut. The Republic of China (Taiwan) granted asylum to Hong Kong’s citizens. The United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada immediately condemned the PRC in a public declaration, while protests started escalating further.
All of this was to no avail. As of June 30, 2020, the so-called Security Law had been passed in the National Congress – a treacherous, totalitarian piece of pulp, which’s preamble egregiously claims to honour the “1 country, 2 systems” decree. Only hours after the proclamation, Nathan Law, Agnes Chow, and Joshua Wong resigned from their positions in Demosisto. The party dissolved. The following morning, July the 1st an unprecedented uncertainty engulfed the city. Whoever entered the port was confronted with the sight of a ship with a large red and yellow banner. It read: “Celebrate the National Security Law” – Communist Party propaganda, right in the center of Hong Kong.
Nevertheless, the people were not intimidated. Not yet. Scores of citizens demonstrated. 370 were arrested. Ten of them under the new so-called security law. One individual for carrying a “Free Hong Kong” flag in his backpack. A flag never waved; an opinion never publicly expressed. The security authorities are now Hong Kong’s and Beijing’s thought police1. By the way, July the 1st is National Day in Hong Kong – a kind of Independence Day. Whether it will ever be celebrated again is questionable.
In the upcoming elections in September 2020, democratic candidates were excluded one by one, as alleged enemies of Hong Kong’s constitution. Among those excluded: Joshua Wong. The elections have been postponed to 2021. Following the forced installation of pro-Beijing MPs in September, a few MPs resigned. Shortly after the entire pro-democracy government faction resigned in November 2020.
Remember Hong Kong
Today, Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow are imprisoned. Nathan Law has been granted asylum in the United States. On January 6th, in the shadow of the storm on the Capitol in Washington, D.C., 50 pro-democracy activists are arrested – the largest targeted arrest wave Hong Kong has ever seen. January 6th, 2021 goes down in history as an omen of the demise of freedom – globally. On February 27th and 28th further arrests and further charges have been pressed against 47 activists. Once again, the already imprisoned Joshua Wong is among them. Only Beijing knows when it’s going to end.
The tragedy of this situation is hard to put into words. For a long time, Hong Kong was the PRC’s gateway to the world. For many years Hong Kong was one of the countries with the best protected freedom of opinion, speech, and assembly in all of Asia. Hong Kong was never able to break the curse of the semi-democratic electoral system imposed on it by its former colonial masters. Hong Kong never gained the sovereignty, autonomy and (social) justice it deserved – even under the constraint of the “1 country, 2 systems” principle. There was always a hope, a chance, an opportunity to fight for more freedom and justice. An unfair, incomplete democracy – which should have had 50 years to overcome itself, to educate itself to stand side by side with the liberal, democratic countries of the world – even at the gates of totalitarianism.
Liberals (or Neoliberals, Libertarians- depending on where you are from) are often accused of putting economic interests first in complete disregard of anything else. However, above anything else we stand up for freedom. For freedoms of any kind and the rights of the individual we act by the creed of “Liberalism first, economy second”. Like most major economies the German economy is immensely dependent on the PRC. A relationship which ensures that millions of Germans find employment, put food on the table and can afford a smartphone even for a pittance. Still, it is important to remember: The PRCs quarrel with the Republic of China (Taiwan) or overstepping in Hong Kong are not grievances in the mess of a weakening national economy failing its citizens. These are targeted and successful attacks by an incredibly powerful, totalitarian regime directed at a delicate haven of freedom. Just in considering Germany’s history of oppression and totalitarianism: We cannot shrug off such assaults.
How Germany fails young democracies
The “comprehensive strategic partnership” between Germany and the PRC is adorned by quotation marks on the the website of the German Foreign Ministry. It is considered important to Germany that the PRC “[…] develops rule-of-law structures and social systems [and] allows more political and economic participation […]”2. There seem to be no efforts to implement this. Just empty promises by Heiko Maas (SPD) to Nathan Law and Joshua Wong to restrict arms exports and facilitate asylum applications. Instead, the Foreign Ministry has been dwelling on the existing legal framework for six months3.
The annual trade volume between Germany and the PRC amounts to more than 200 billion euros. Accordingly, the annual development aid of more than 600 million Euros Germany is providing to the PRC should at least be re-examined4.
Germany’s reaction is disappointing. Germany too has denounced the PRC – and yet German-made water cannons are aimed at freedom fighters in a country full of potential. And yet Germany seems impotent – while the dragon’s eyes are noticeably wandering to the Republic of China (Taiwan).
At least the citizens of the so-called Milk Tea Alliance are supporting one another. Hong Kong, the Republic of China (Taiwan) and Thailand – countries which are united in their love for milk tea drinks as well as the fight for democracy. There is no help to be expected of Germany. The flag of the Republic of China (Taiwan) has been taken off the website of the German Foreign Ministry5 – Taiwan, a country which Germany maintains close trade relations to, a country which ranks two places above Germany in the Human Development Index6. The recent, significant border violations by the PRC against the Republic of China (Taiwan), with 15 combat-ready fighter jets, were not commented on – just like last years pro-democracy protests in Thailand7. No, the precarious Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn was granted visa-free entry at any cost8. All this despite the fact that he has been unlawfully ruling his country out of Bavaria for four years9. Democracy in Southeast Asia seems to be a blind spot to German Foreign Policy.
Hong Kong’s residents have always fought for their freedom. They have done so with enormous perseverance and have always demonstrated fairness and absolute resilience, especially in the last 23 years. Whether they will ever be permitted, let alone be able, to fight this battle again is questionable. What is beyond question: The loss of an “incomplete democracy” must also concern us. It has to serve as a grim memorial and uninvited motivation.
About the Author
Jonathan mainly focuses on economics, technology, political communication and foreign policy. He is a 22-year-old industrial engineering student from Berlin, Germany. Jonathan is a member of German Free Democratic Party.