Hong Kong’s liberal democracy faces an existential threat, more visible than any time in the past 23 years, as exemplified by the recent arrests of democratic activists. Beijing seems to be running out of patience and continues to push the city towards a fait accompli of ‘one country, one party, one system’, as in mainland China.
When Britain handed over Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China after 156 years of rule in 1997, a novel principle of governance known as ‘One Country, Two Systems’ was agreed upon with a validity of 50 years. Today, it is no longer visible in Hong Kong in actual practice, while it still stands in principle.
The agreement was perceived as the basis on which the unique character of the city and its people, rooted in a Western political outlook different from the mainland’s communism-inspired political system, would be preserved for the next five decades, until 2047, after which that arrangement would expire, paving way for transitioning into complete Chinese control.
The arrangement requires another 27 years for its expiry. Notwithstanding this fact, the Communist Party-controlled Beijing seems to be losing patience and not willing to wait for another three decades to legitimately take control of the city.
Today, Beijing is pushing and coercing Hong Kong towards a fait accompli of ‘one country, one party, one system’. This is proved by its tactical and suppressive moves in the recent past.
Protests continue, so do crackdown on dissent
Recent tensions and public unrest in the city have been simmering for the past 18 months, beginning with an extradition law imposed by Beijing in June 2019 targeted at suppressing sedition and rebellion on the citizens of Hong Kong, which allowed handover of convicts from the city to mainland China, triggering public unrest. Mounting protests finally led to the withdrawal of the bill in October.
Before 2019, there were nonviolent protests in the banners of Occupy Central Movement and the Umbrella Movement, both in 2014, demanding transparency in elections and preserving time-held electoral procedures which the Chinese Communist Party attempted to dilute, triggering protests. These were led by students and the youth numbering in tens of thousands, if not millions.
Coming to 2020, the move that triggered protests was a national security law imposed by Beijing on the city in the midnight prior to the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover on July 1. It was aimed at disqualifying legislators in the name of offences such as supporting Hong Kong’s independence, refusing to acknowledge China’s sovereignty, supporting foreign forces to interfere in the city’s affairs, or in any other ways threaten national security.
The new law also allowed Beijing to open an intelligence office in the city soon after, to monitor whether the behaviour of Hong Kong citizens is in line with its expectations, effectively formalizing and legalizing crackdown on dissent. Any act of disrespecting national symbols including Chinese national anthem was also penalised.
Sidelining the Opposition
In another move, earlier this year, a resolution passed by the Chinese legislature allowed the Beijing-backed city government to directly dismiss elected members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council or LegCo without taking the judicial route. This triggered mass resignations by lawmakers as an expression of protest, and effectively leaving the 70-member LegCo with no functioning Opposition. This has further strengthened Beijing’s will to intensify crackdown on anyone opposing its objectives.
With the Opposition tactically removed and a pro-Beijing Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, at helm, Beijing expedited its witch-hunt on Hong Kong’s prominent and outspoken democratic activists and Opposition leaders, including Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Ivan Lam, jailing them for taking part in protests, last year. Most recently, a Hong Kong media tycoon running an anti-government tabloid, Jimmy Lai, was arrested in a fraud case and was denied bail.
Following the passing of the new national security law, Britain formally suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, that had been in place for 30 years, for an indefinite period, fearing the possibility that anyone extradited to Hong Kong from the UK might be sent to China to face trials.
Citing China’s open disregard for bilateral agreements, London even promised an alternative route for British citizenship to any Hongkonger holding a British National Overseas passport, inviting a strongly-worded response from Beijing.
Britain, US, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, collectively known as the Five Eyes, have also criticized Beijing’s ploy to destroy democratically-elected LegCo, last month. They called the Chinese move a clear breach of its international obligations under the legally-binding and UN-approved Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 that paved the way for the territory’s handover in 1997.
Most recently, the British foreign secretary said London is considering a review of the arrangement for appointment of British judges for Hong Kong’s top court, absence of which could act as a severe blow to the city’s judicial reputation. To this, Beijing responded by saying that Britain had no supervisory power or moral responsibility over Hong Kong’s affairs.
The United States responded by sanctioning members of China’s ruling party and by making visa rules stricter for them to enter the US, yet another factor contributing to the retaliatory rants of a new brand of Chinese ‘wolf-warrior’ diplomats.
Disappearing thin line
Deprived of their natural and democratic rights, the sorry plight of the people of Hong Kong remains unchanged for many years now, and the Chinese power and influence continues to expand to newer horizons beyond its neighbourhood and across the globe. As each day passes, the thin line between mainland China and Hong Kong is disappearing, faster than expected.