Hong Kong: Clampdown on dissent

Informed observers say there is a definite shift under Xi’s presidency towards stronger regulatory and ideological constraints on civil society freedoms

 

The jailing of three young protesters by Hong Kong’s appeal court last week brought tens of thousands of demonstrators on to the streets, recalling the larger and prolonged 2014 Occupy protests in favour of more democracy. Hong Kong’s status as an autonomous part of China under the 50-year “one country, two systems” agreement reached with Britain in 1997 is strained by these events. They are part of a pattern of greater authoritarianism and reduced tolerance of dissent in China as a whole.

Such a conclusion is disputed by Hong Kong’s government, which says the rule of law and representative institutions agreed in 1997 survive intact. The territory’s autonomy remains in place 20 years on even if it is subject to greater Chinese oversight. That was made plain when Chinese president Xi Jinping spoke there in May of red lines beyond which dissent should not proceed.

Britain is constrained in defending Hong Kong by its need to trade with China after Brexit

Preparations for the forthcoming 19th Chinese Communist Party congress this autumn see a trend towards greater controls on freedom of expression and independent protests, ranging from online censorship to the current banning of articles in academic journals critical of Chinese policies in Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Informed observers say this is not a cyclical trend ahead of the congress but a definite shift under Xi’s presidency towards stronger regulatory and ideological constraints on civil society freedoms.

Hong Kong is part and parcel of these trends, notwithstanding its special status. The 20 years since 1997 have transformed its position. They started when its economy was valued as one-fifth of China’s and Hong Kong was the main conduit for international investment in the mainland. Now it is an estimated 3 per cent of China’s vastly expanded economy and its financial flows are increasingly dwarfed by Shanghai. Britain too is constrained in defending Hong Kong by its need to trade with China after Brexit and its weakening international role. The protesters and their supporters must find a balance between realism and courage as they navigate these changes.

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