Hong Kong's citizens remain determined to achieve democratic values for their city. Photo: Anthony Kwan/Stringer/Getty Images
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The fight for democracy and liberty in Hong Kong

Chinese pressure on the city's government is pushing the situation into dangerous territory.

Since the official handover from Britain in 1997, Hong Kong has been under Chinese influence once more. However, the “one country, two systems” mantra enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 dictates that the city’s capitalist system and way of life should remain unchanged for at least 50 years.

The city’s people are increasingly demanding democracy, but they aren’t getting it. Most want the city’s chief executive, a position currently held by Leung Chun-ying, to be elected by universal suffrage. Instead, moves are being made to ensure that occupiers of the post are endorsed by Beijing, a system which gives the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) significant control over the city.

Leung made a report to the CCP’s National People Congress on 15 July, stating that Hong Kong should enjoy universal suffrage, but should only choose between a range of candidates proposed by a nominating committee loyal to Beijing. This has been criticised by the currently flourishing pro-democracy movement as a pretence.

To further complicate the issue, on 19 July high-ranking CCP official Zhang Dejiang visited the city and expressed support for Leung’s proposals. His opinions suggested that “Beijing would not tighten its power over Hong Kong” but that full-blown “civic nomination... was illegal.” His CCP seniors have reacted negatively to his comments.

Finally, the pro-democracy campaign in Hong Kong is itself divided. A group called Occupy Central has proposed staging civil disobedience in the main financial hub of the city. This has been met with widespread criticism. The Alliance for Peace and Democracy condemns the proposal for fear of violence and damage to the economy, and claims to have collected well over 900,000 signatures against it. But the idea is by no means defeated. Student groups in particular have urged pro-democratic civil disobedience so that their opponents will “see how serious Hong Kong people are treating democracy”.

This unfolding drama has gone largely unnoticed by the Western media, with attention focused on the chaos in the Middle East and Ukraine. However, the threat to freedom and security evolving in Hong Kong should not be underestimated. The details of the proposals for universal suffrage may seem pedantic, but civil disobedience’s presence as a talking point indicates the potential for these tensions to escalate fast. For instance, it’s possible that the People’s Liberation Army could make its presence known in the city.

Michael DeGolyer, a leading pollster in Hong Kong, commented that “if [the pro-democracy groups] overplay their hand... the state comes down on them”. He drew pointed comparison to Tiananmen Square not long after the 25th anniversary of the massacre. The state-run Global Times ran an editorial claiming that “sharp political confrontation does nobody any good”.

Moreover, Beijing is undertaking a gradual suppression of the Hong Kong press, exerting pressure on pro-democratic outlets. The news site House News shut over the weekend, citing political pressure. One of the site’s founders said that “to act like a normal citizen, a normal media outlet... is not easy, it’s even terrifying”. The site had opposed plans in 2012 to introduce mandatory pro-China “patriotic lessons”, plans which were eventually shelved.

Mark Milke notes that the right to vote has by no means been a necessary condition for “peace and prosperity”, since Hong Kong has enjoyed both of those for many years without suffrage. But democracy matters to them for reasons beyond the instrumental. They feel that self-determination, at least in choosing the city’s government, is intrinsically important, important enough that many would risk violence and reactionary measures from Beijing itself. This risk should accord international attention, and Hong Kong could do with help from voices from elsewhere.

Moreover, all of this implicates Britain in an awkward clash with China. Britain has faced calls for it to express diplomatic concerns and vocally defend pro-democrats in Hong Kong. But disagreements with China aren’t high on the Foreign Office’s agenda. Britain’s allies, chiefly the United States, will also be keen to avoid any flashpoint scenarios. For now, unless the pro-democracy movement can quell its more violent urges, the situation will escalate and Beijing’s sinister moves against liberty in the city will continue.

Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Nigel Farage and Douglas Carswell don’t need to stand again as MPs – they’ve already won

I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. 

We’re a week in to the campaign, and it’s clear that the 2017 election is going to be hell on toast. The polls show the Tories beating Labour in Scotland (for the first time in a generation) and Wales (for the first time in a century). The bookies put the chances of a Labour majority at around 20/1, odds that are striking mainly because they contain just one zero.

The only element of suspense in this election is whether Theresa May will win a big enough majority to keep Labour out of power for a decade, or one big enough to keep it out for an entire generation. In sum: if you’re on the left, this election will be awful.

But there was one bright spot, a deep well of Schadenfreude that I thought might get us through: the campaign would provide plentiful opportunities to watch the people who got us into this mess be humiliatingly rejected by the electorate yet again.

After all, Ukip’s polling numbers have halved since last summer and the party has fallen back into fourth place, behind the pro-European Lib Dems. Nigel Farage has failed to become an MP seven times. It thus seemed inevitable both that Farage would stand, and that he would lose. Again.

If the vexingly popular Farage has never made it to parliament, the odds that his replacement as Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall (the Walter Mitty of Bootle), would manage it seemed minimal. Ukip may have won last year’s referendum; that did not mean its leaders wouldn’t still lose elections, preferably in the most embarrassing way possible.

The true highlight of the election, though, promised to be Clacton. The Essex seaside town is the only constituency ever to have returned a Ukip candidate at a general election, opting to let the Tory defector Douglas Carswell stay on in 2015. But Carswell’s libertarian belief that Brexit was definitely not about immigration always seemed an odd fit with Ukip, and he left the party in March. In the upcoming election, he seemed certain to face a challenge from the party’s immigration-obsessed donor Arron Banks.

The Clacton election, in other words, was expected to serve as a pleasing metaphor for Ukip’s descent back into irrelevance. The libertarians and nativists would rip chunks out of each other for a few weeks while the rest of us sniggered, before both inevitably lost the seat to a safe pair of Tory hands. This election will be awful, but Clacton was going to be brilliant.

But no: 2017 deprives us of even that pleasure. Carswell has neatly sidestepped the possibility of highlighting his complete lack of personal support by standing down, with the result that he can tell himself he is quitting undefeated.

Carswell has always stood apart from Ukip but on this matter, at least, the party has rushed to follow his lead. Arron Banks spent a few days claiming that he would be running in Clacton. Then he visited the town and promptly changed his mind. At a press conference on 24 April, Paul Nuttall was asked whether he planned to stand for a seat in Westminster. Rather than answering, he locked himself in a room, presumably in the hope that the journalists outside would go away. Really.

As for Farage, he seems finally to have shaken his addiction to losing elections and decided not to stand at all. “It would be a very easy win,” he wrote in the Daily Tele­graph, “and for me a personal vindication to get into the House of Commons after all these years of standing in elections.” He was like an American teenager assuring his mates that his definitely real Canadian girlfriend goes to another school.

Why does all of this bother me? I don’t want these people anywhere near Westminster, and if they insisted on standing for a seat there would be at least the chance that, in these febrile times, one of them might actually win. So why am I annoyed that they aren’t even bothering?

Partly I’m infuriated by the cowardice on show. They have wrecked my country, completely and irrevocably, and then they’ve just legged it. It’s like a version of Knock Down Ginger, except instead of ringing the doorbell they’ve set fire to the house.

Partly, too, my frustration comes from my suspicion that it doesn’t matter whether Ukip fields a single candidate in this election. Theresa May’s Tories have already assimilated the key tenets of Farageism. That Nigel Farage no longer feels the need to claw his way into parliament merely highlights that he no longer needs to.

Then there’s the fury generated by my lingering sense that these men have managed to accrue a great deal of power without the slightest hint of accountability. In the south London seat of Vauxhall, one of the most pro-Remain constituencies in one of the most pro-Remain cities in the UK, the Labour Leave campaigner Kate Hoey is expected to face a strong challenge from the Liberal Democrats. Even Labour members are talking about voting tactically to get their hated MP out.

It remains to be seen whether that campaign succeeds but there is at least an opportunity for angry, pro-European lefties to register their discontent with Hoey. By contrast, Farage and his henchmen have managed to rewrite British politics to a degree that no one has achieved in decades, yet there is no way for those who don’t approve to make clear that they don’t like it.

Mostly, though, my frustration is simpler than that. I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. I want to see them stumble from gaffe to gaffe for six weeks before coming fourth – but now we will be deprived of that. Faced with losing, the biggest names in Ukip have decided that they no longer want to play. And so they get to win again. They always bloody win. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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