Why is Hong Kong protesting?

Hongkongers fight for their freedom. Image credit: Etan Liam / Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

The Chinese Communist officials drafted a national security law for Hong Kong, to be approved by China’s rubber-stamp parliament. This draft law was approved by the Chinese parliament on 28 May. Now, any action related to “secession, subversion, terrorism, and foreign interference” is illegal and is subject to imprisonment in Hong Kong. This law also allows China to set up security agencies in Hong Kong to ensure its implementation. 

What do Hongkongers think about the new law?

This is shocking to most Hongkongers. No one expected the Chinese Communist Party would bypass the Hong Kong legislature and impose its dictatorial might on Hongkongers. Hong Kong is a special administrative region with its semi-autonomous system running separately from the rest of China. This is Beijing’s new move to tighten its grip on Hong Kong.

We see this as a response to the political unrest in Hong Kong since June of last year. The unrest was triggered by an extradition law proposal which would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited from Hong Kong’s jurisdiction to that of mainland China. As there is no independent judiciary in the mainland, Hongkongers were afraid that this extradition law would become a political tool to suppress basic freedoms in this special administrative region.

Now, the new national security law has more direct consequences for any critic of the Hong Kong Government and the Chinese Communist Party regime. One only has to recall how Chinese authorities imprisoned human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang – who took up sensitive cases of journalists, democracy advocates and followers of banned spiritual movements – for nearly five years for the crime of “subversion of state power.”

Western liberal democracies have rule of law and separation of powers to prevent such abuse of national security law. The People’s Republic of China has only one power, the Communist Party, that effectively controls the government, legislature, and judiciary, and the word of the Communist Party boss is the law.

Ask anyone who lived under the Iron Curtain, and they can immediately point out that those in power will not stop oppressing their political opponents until these voices are completely silenced.

There will also be people who will abuse this law to settle scores with their personal nemeses. Informing on a colleague, employer, landlord,  business partner, creditor, debtor, romantic rival, and so forth can have very dire consequences for the victim – especially if the informant happens to be well connected to Chinese Communist Party or to China’s state security services. Hence, even those people who are entirely apolitical can easily become victims of this law. In other words, all Hongkongers will live under immense fear once this law has been implemented. This is the end of Hong Kong as we know it.

Why are people in Hong Kong still protesting?

Despite those new regulations for social distancing during the coronavirus outbreak, as well as the increasing tightening by police enforcement on any public assemblies, thousands of protesters took to the streets on 24 May to protest the draft of the national security law.

Protesters are well aware of all the consequences of being on the street and confronting the police, but they are willing to do it because they did not give up their free will. Instead, people decided to use more forceful tactics as alast resort to fight against the dictatorship. 

The political structure in Hong Kong enables the government to introduce any law regardless of public opinion in the society (just like the extradition law which sparked the protest last June). Ms. Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, was hand-picked by the Chinese Communist Party. In other words, she has no democratic mandate to represent the society (she was formally “elected” by an unrepresentative election committee consisting of 1200 people who are mostly controlled by Beijing).

On the other hand, the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s de-facto parliament, consists of 70 representatives, half of whom were not directly elected in the “one person, one vote” electoral constituencies. For example, some 140 insurance companies, all of whom have a strong vested interest in getting along well with the government, have their own elected representatives in the Legislative Council. This means that Prudential, a US insurance company, has a voting power equal to 6000 Hong Kong people. This is a mockery of the democratic principle of one person, one vote.

Even worse, a few years ago, several pro-democracy lawmakers who were democratically elected were disqualified and not allowed to take their seats because clerks at the election committee doubted the sincerity of their vows, further undermining the already deeply flawed system of electing representatives. Hong Kong people are protesting because they want to live in a democracy.

The severity and continuity of protests in Hong Kong is a result of the gradual collapse of Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous system and the complete lack of progress in democratic reforms (one of their demands is universal suffrage, with one person, one vote).

Imagine the anxiety going on in Hong Kong now, when there is nothing else one can do but to protest to protect the promised autonomy. The erosion of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong is getting worse in every aspect. For example, Radio Television Hong Kong (a local public broadcasting service) was forced to take down a long-running political satire show because it contains ironic criticisms about the Hong Kong Police. However, this TV show has been joking about political matters for 31 years.

Rule of law is vanishing in front of us. Police officers can seemingly arrest anyone who gets in their way. Hong Kong government refuses to form an independent commission to investigate police misconduct during the arrests, use of excessive force, and even sexual assault. Internal investigations by the police have been opaque at best and nobody has ever been charged. At worst, as shown from various credible media outlets, the Hong Kong Police Force has repeatedly slighted international regulations to fire teargas at journalists, shoot rubber bullets at lethal range, and even apply tear smoke in metro stations.

Will Hong Kong become just another city of China? It is an answer we don’t want to think about.

Why are the Hongkongers so opposed to the passing of  this national security law by China?

Apart from the dire implications of the content of the law itself, discussed above, there is the issue of jurisdiction. Hong Kong’s unique case is almost incomparable to any other autonomous region in the world. Firstly, the condition under which the UK agreed to hand over Hong Kong to China was that Hong Kong would be free to rule itself in all matters except for foreign policy and military affairs. China agreed to this in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 (an international agreement endorsed by the UN).

As enshrined by this declaration, it is up to the Hong Kong Government, not the Chinese Government, to propose when is the best time to legislate its national security law. Such law, for which a provision is made in Article 23 of the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s own constitution), has to be approved by the Legislative Council but not the National People’s Congress in Beijing. The latest draft law proposed by the Chinese Communist officials has blatantly violated the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

What can Estonia learn from it? 

Estonians are smart and know well (either from their own experience or from what their parents and grandparents have told them) what living under a Communist dictatorship is like. Estonians also know what a promise by a Communist dictatorship is worth.

So, in some sense, this should simply remind Estonians what most of them know anyway: Communist dictatorships like China cannot be trusted. Unlike the Soviet Union in the Baltic States in the summer of 1940, China has so far kept its military garrison in its base. But just like the promises Moscow made to the Baltic States in peace treaties in 1920 and in so-called Mutual Assistance Treaties in 1939, Beijing’s promise in 1984 not to impose China’s tyrannical form of government on the Hong Kong people is not worth the paper it is written on.

For a communist dictatorship like China, the concept of a treaty (or a contract) is alien. All treaties that China signs become “historical documents” (this is how Chinese leaders have referred to the Sino-British Joint Declaration). If an opportunity rises to benefit from breaking a treaty China has signed and the threat of retaliation is minimal, China’s leaders won’t have second thoughts on what course of action to take.

Estonians should be mindful about how much they give up in exchange for the economic benefits offered by the Chinese Communist Party. While it is inevitable that in a global economy one has to work with China, Estonia should not give in when it comes to fundamental values such as human rights, basic freedoms, and democracy. After all, it is not long ago that Estonians themselves fought for these values in the Singing Revolution.

The threat posed by Communist China to Estonia and to other nations that share and cherish the aforementioned fundamental values of free societies comes in creeping. At the beginning, it is a business proposal, one that is almost too good to be true. Then it develops into a regular and mutually profitable business relationship. This, in turn, sooner or later develops into dependence on China. It could be dependence on a lucrative export market, dependence on raw materials, dependence on financing, or dependence on technology. Most people won’t even notice it and some will make good money. The latter will undoubtedly also lobby for a continued good relationship with China at all cost.

But sooner or later, something will happen. Perhaps someone decides to host his excellency the Dalai Lama in Tartu (he does have an honorary doctorate from the University of Tartu). Or maybe someone posts a meme online that somehow offends the sensitive feelings of Chinese people (China has its own culture of political correctness). Or maybe ERR wants to air a documentary about the Uighur concentration camps. It is then that China will give a “gentle reminder” to Estonian authorities that if Estonia upsets China (or if Estonia simply allows the upsetting thing to happen on its territory), then Estonia will be punished where it hurts. That is, China will use the economic dependence to bully Estonia into changing course (even if this comes at the expense of fundamental values).

If Estonia does not yield, China will make Estonia bleed economically to teach a lesson to other nations who might contemplate setting their fundamental values above the Chinese Communist Party’s interests (or, the very least, above the fragile feelings of some Chinese people caught in mass hysteria). Therefore, it is important for Estonian people to learn that there is no apolitical way of doing business in China. Any business in or with China is inherently political.

The authors of this article Litman Huang and Aubrey Yung are the University of Tartu students from Hong Kong. The article was first published in the Estonian daily Postimees.

Today is the anniversary of the protest that brought two million Hongkongers on the streets against the extradition bill. People are still fighting for the same cause today – against the Chinese Communist Party.

This entry was posted in Events and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.