Big trouble in little China: Hong Kongers defy the government and Beijing

Faith in the “one country, two systems” arrangement, which promises Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” from China is waning, culminating in mass protests over the extradition bill. 

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It all began with a murder. In February 2018, a young woman on holiday from Hong Kong was found strangled and stuffed inside a suitcase near a metro station in Taipei. Her boyfriend, who was later arrested in Hong Kong, confessed to the crime but couldn’t be tried for her murder because the territory has no extradition treaty with Taiwan – he was instead charged with the lesser offence of money laundering.

The Hong Kong government used the case to propose a bill that would allow for suspected criminals to be extradited to Taiwan, as well as other countries with which Hong Kong has no extradition agreement, including
mainland China.

But on Wednesday 12 June, Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed chief executive, Carrie Lam, announced that her government would shelve the bill indefinitely. It came after hundreds of thousands of people marched through the streets of Hong Kong Island, clashing with police, who, in an unusual show of force, responded with tear gas, batons and rubber bullets in the worst violence in the territory since the British handover in 1997.

Shelving the bill was an embarrassing concession for Lam, who accused the demonstrators of “rioting”. Yet it wasn’t enough, and on 15 June an estimated two million people rallied again in the largest show of political defiance in Hong Kong’s history. Dressed in black, and starting from Victoria Park in the centre of town, the crowd snaked close to the harbour front and towards the government buildings in the financial district a few miles away. Protesters demanded the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill, as well as Lam’s resignation.

The most prominent chant was “chit wui” – “withdraw” – a statement that refers not only to the recently proposed legislation, but to Beijing’s tightening grip over Hong Kong’s affairs. The past few years have seen the erosion of the “core values” that, in 1997, the British and Chinese governments promised Hong Kongers would remain in place until 2047 – the rule of law, a free press, the right to travel, and the right to engage in the political process.

Leaders of the pro-democracy movement have been imprisoned. Politicians and lawmakers have been prevented from running, or disqualified from taking their seats on spurious grounds. Booksellers who trade salacious works on the private lives of Chinese Communist Party members have been “disappeared” to the mainland. Journalists are increasingly cautious when reporting on China. Academic appointments at universities are more and more determined by a candidate’s political views. It is now illegal to disrespect “March of the Volunteers”, the national anthem of China, while the neutrality of the civil service and judiciary is being questioned.

The result is that people’s faith in the “one country, two systems” constitutional arrangement, which promises Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” from China is waning, as one country overrides any sense of there being two systems.

The disquiet about Hong Kong’s illiberal turn is manifest in the look, feel and tactical awareness of those protesting. Compared to the 2014 Umbrella Revolution, when pro-democracy activists demanding universal suffrage occupied roads around Hong Kong’s financial district for 79 days, today’s protesters are more streetwise about avoiding arrest and legal retribution.

They’re reluctant to give their names to journalists, cover their faces and are wary of leaving any digital trace at marches. They pay for travel to and from the demonstrations in cash – rather than prepaid cards – deactivate tracking apps such as Google Maps and communicate primarily through Telegram, an encrypted messaging service that has a self-destruct function.

The protesters’ hopes are fragile, but they may prove more successful in their short-term aims than the Umbrella movement simply because their arguments have the support of the city’s huge wealth management sector behind them. Business tycoons will be reluctant to live and work in a city where their assets might be seized or frozen before charges are even laid.

Over in Taiwan, thousands marched in solidarity with Hong Kong, calling on the island’s presidential candidates to offer sanctuary for political refugees from Hong Kong and to promise that they would never agree to a “one country, two systems” arrangement with Beijing. Some Taiwanese even travelled to Hong Kong to join the protesters. Chia Yu, a 22-year-old student from Taipei, came to the city to demonstrate, fearing that if Hong Kong makes further concessions to China, then Taiwan might be next. “I really don’t want Taiwan to be united with China because I don’t want to live in a place I can’t speak freely,” she said.

Events in Hong Kong over the past two weeks have been a stirring rebuke to the idea of an all-powerful China, a superpower that is able to get countries and territories to bend to its political will. With an on-going trade war with the US, increased international exposure of human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, and mass demonstrations on his southern doorstep, President Xi Jinping arrives at the G20 in Osaka later this month looking unusually vulnerable on the international stage.

Yet for all of their steely defiance in the face of China’s encroachment over the territory, Hong Kongers face a dark future as 2047 approaches and its semi-autonomous status ends. Laws such as the extradition bill will return, presented in new guises, as will other legislation designed to turn Hong Kong into just another Marxist-Leninist mega-city on the Pearl River Delta.

Indeed, thinking about what China is doing to the city, its freedoms and identity, it’s hard not to recall O’Brien’s line to Winston Smith at the end of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “We shall squeeze you empty and then we shall fill you with ourselves.”

This article appears in the 19 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Bad news