Hong Kong’s cherished freedoms under threat

Territory is guaranteed autonomy but is dependent on China for economic well-being

Hong Kong riot police walk along a cordoned-off street on February 9th following overnight clashes between protesters and police in the Mong Kok area. Photograph: Dale de la Rey/AFP/Getty Images

Hong Kong riot police walk along a cordoned-off street on February 9th following overnight clashes between protesters and police in the Mong Kok area. Photograph: Dale de la Rey/AFP/Getty Images

 

A stroll through Causeway Bay’s shopping emporia or the boiling streets of Mong Kok reveals little of the anger behind the scenes in Hong Kong, yet both of these vibrant precincts have been the backdrop to extraordinary political theatre in the past few months.

As Hong Kongers celebrated the arrival of the Year of the Monkey last month, a demonstration by street hawkers protesting against a crackdown on illegal food stalls turned into a running street battle in Mong Kok. Police fired warning shots and used pepper spray while rioters set fires and threw bricks, rubbish bins and bottles at police.

For many years, protests in Hong Kong were cowed affairs, packed but calm and kind of directionless, until the Occupy protests in 2014, when millions blocked the streets for weeks, demanding direct elections of the city’s chief executive.

Hong Kong’s limited democracy is the only form of pluralism allowed in China, and the ruling Communist Party in Beijing is keen that there be no contagion from the south. Its response has been tough and the central government is tightening controls on the freewheeling city-state, which reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.

Under the Basic Law introduced at that time, the territory is guaranteed a high degree of autonomy, but a series of recent events are seen as a sign that Hong Kong’s cherished freedoms may be under threat.

At the same time, Hong Kong is heavily dependent on China for its economic wellbeing, and many in the territory are bitterly opposed to calls for more autonomy from Beijing. For their part those who want Hong Kong to be independent from China have sworn to continue their actions, prompting angry reactions from Beijing.

Typically, the reaction from Beijing has played out in various, multifaceted ways.

An edgy, politically-charged independent movie called 10 Years, which provides a dystopic vision of Hong Kong after another decade of Mainland Chinese rule, has been nominated for best picture at the Hong Kong film awards in April. The response from China’s state-run media has been to boycott the awards, a form of exported censorship that is tough for Hong Kong’s top filmmakers to oppose, as most make their living in China.

Occupy protests

Mong Kok was a stark reminder of how potentially explosive the Occupy protests in 2014 remain.

Zhang Xiaoming, director of the central government’s Hong Kong liaison office, condemned the Mong Kok demonstrators as “radical separatists whose behaviour got more and more violent and even showed terror tendencies”.

The protests were led by a group of radical activists from the Localism group, who strongly oppose rule by Beijing and who push back against what they see as efforts by the Beijing-backed government to chip away at the city’s autonomy.

Labelling the so-called “fishball riots” as “separatism” is a sign the government wants to use them as a pretext to introduce tough national security legislation to appease Beijing’s calls for a harder line in Hong Kong, said Alvin YH Cheung of the Progressive Lawyers Group.

“Things will get bleaker for Hong Kong. Beijing will intensify its attempts to assert domination over Hong Kong. I expect renewed efforts to focus on the media, higher education, and the legal profession,” he said.

Cheung believes that violent clashes could become routine in Hong Kong, because Localism’s ideas, if not necessarily their methods, will gain popularity.

In Causeway Bay, the Causeway Bay Bookshop has had five of its staff and owners, including British national Lee Bo and Swedish national Gui Minhai, who appears to have been picked up by Chinese security forces while holidaying in Thailand, disappear in mysterious circumstances and reappear in China “co-operating with investigations”.

Analysts say it’s a clear sign that security forces on the mainland have scant regard for the legal protections in the Basic Law.

Kerry Brown, a professor of Chinese studies and director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College in London, believes Beijing feels emboldened right now and is aware that there is little if anything that others can do.

“The abduction of the booksellers and the strong language in the six monthly report produced by the UK shows in effect that the joint agreement between the UK and China on Hong Kong is dying, perhaps even dead,” Mr Brown told The Irish Times.

UN high commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has expressed his concern about the booksellers.

“I urge the government of China to ensure a fair and transparent procedure for these cases,” Zeid said, adding that the men’s relatives and representatives should be given access to them.

Capitalist city

There is great irony in the traditional argument against the pro-democracy movement, which is that the democrats are a destabilising force in Hong Kong, whereas a single-party communist government is the most suitable administration for the most freewheeling capitalist city on the planet.

That sounds less credible than before since HSBC, which stands for Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank and was headquartered in the territory from 1865 until the early 1990s, made a board decision to stay in London rather than move back to Hong Kong.

London has many obvious business advantages for HSBC, but the tightening political situation in Hong Kong must have played a role, given that the bank sought the advice of former US secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice in making their decision.

HSBC’s decision also shows that it no longer considers Chinese growth to be as central to its business plan as previously.

“The HSBC move is part of a belated realisation within the business community that they are not immune to shifts in the Chinese political climate, and they cannot buy their way out with gestures of appeasement,” said Cheung.

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