Freedom and Democracy in Hong Kong: an unattainable goal?

By Rex Chiu, GLOBUS Correspondent

8,911 days have passed since the handover of Hong Kong to China. And yet, the promises of democracy made to the citizens of Hong Kong over 30 years have not yet been fully realised. 

On the 19th December, 1984, the UK and China signed an agreement – known as the Sino-British Joint Declaration – that guaranteed that the freedoms enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong would remain unchanged for at least 50 years. To uphold its side of the agreement, China enacted the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s de-facto “mini-constitution”), which, in article 45, states the Chief Executive (Hong Kong’s “President”/ “Prime Minister”) “shall be selected by election or through consultations held locally”, and that “the ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage… in accordance with democratic procedures.” Yet to date, not only has this not been achieved, but freedoms in Hong Kong have been in fact been restricted; the extradition bill amendment proposed last year by the Carrie Lam government allowed dissents and ordinary people in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China at ease, where its judicial system is questioned by many. Whilst the controversial bill has was retracted 3 months later, protester’s demands have evolved to beyond to call for democracy in Hong Kong. 

The renewed call for democracy 

The first instance where protester’s demands have moved on from just calling for a retraction of the extradition bill amendment was on 16th June, 2019, where 2 million people (27% of HK’s population) marched on the streets supporting “five demands”, a term coined by the Civil Human Rights Front, the organisation behind the massive rallies. These five demands include the following: 

  1. A complete withdrawal of the extradition bill 
  1. Investigate accountability for the decision to shoot protesters in the rally on the 12th June 
  1. Release of all arrested protesters and withdrawal of all charges 
  1. Retraction of the characterisation of protesters on the 12th June as “rioters” 
  1. Resignation of Carrie Lam 

And as time developed, demands 2 and 5 evolved to become “Establish a commission of inquiry into alleged police brutality” and “Dual universal suffrage [Chief Executive and Legco/ “parliament” elections]” respectively. These two demands also emerged as more significant than others, as demand 2 is a truth-searching procedure akin to South Africa’s Goldstone Commission, and demand 5 solves the root cause of the issue – a government unresponsive to its citizen’s demands. 

Increased control VS reform: which is the path to take? 

Nevertheless, some politicians in HK view things differently, believing that instead of granting Hong Kongers democracy and maintaining their freedoms, these things can and should be restricted in the name of “national security”. In interviews with The Economist’s “The Economist Asks” and DW’s “Conflict Zone” regarding the new national security law imposed on Hong Kong in late June this year, Regina Ip, chairwomen of the New People’s Party (a pro-Beijing political party) claims that the “Common law [juridical system in Hong Kong] brings with it all the reasonable safeguards of freedom”, yet, that judges also “have a duty to protect the welfare of Hong Kong being a part of the nation.” She further professes that “Hong Kong’s democratic movement has been hijacked by extremists and radicals”, which, in the eyes of Beijing, is a challenge to its “authority and sovereignty”. Hence, she believes Beijing has “no option but to get on with introducing a set of laws that will protect national security and discourage separatist activities.”  She further justifies this by arguing that “promoting Hong Kong independence, waving [the] Hong Kong flag, chanting revolutionary songs” are “activities no government would allow”, and as “rights and freedoms are not absolute”, if a national security law’s limit on freedoms is “reasonably necessary and proportionate”, then it is also justified. 

Similarly, Starry Lee, chairwomen of The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (the largest pro-Beijing political party in Legislative Council of Hong Kong), remarked in an interview with China Daily that “the national security law has a strong deterrent effect”, and is totally justified in that it would hopefully “bring peace back to Hong Kong.” This has also been the line that authorities have taken, with mass arrests (10,016 people up till 8th September, 2020), a ban on all protests since enacting the new national security law (1st July to 31st August, in Chinese), and more recently, a new national security law, enacted by officials based in the central government in Beijing. All these measures either tried installing fear within the people of Hong Kong, or directly limited the freedoms of assembly, free speech and free thought promised in the Sino-British Joint Declaration

Yet, Ma Ngok, associate professor of politics and public administration at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), disagrees this is the correct line to take. In a commentary written for Ming Pao (in Chinese: “The Narrow Corridor of ‘One Country, Two Systems’”) dated 21st August, 2020, he claims that to maintain Hong Kong’s role as an “International Finance Centre”, the “Narrow Corridor of freedom” in “One Country, Two Systems” (the political framework that separates Hong Kong from mainland China) must be observed. Three things occur simultaneously to safeguard this “Narrow Corridor of freedom”, “restrain on the part of the central government to maintain this “Narrow Corridor of freedom”, not to subvert or redefine it using its power; institutions and articles in the Basic Law that uphold autonomy and freedom are not destroyed; and practices in Hong Kong (like professional spirit and ethics, rule of law etc) are allowed to continue.” Yet, in recent years, he believes this “Narrow Corridor of freedom” has dwindled, causing discords in society and rocking international trust in Hong Kong. 

But who does the Hong Kong public actually agree with? In a poll undertaken by CUHK’s Centre for Communication and Public Opinion Survey commissioned by Ming Pao (in Chinese), 83% of all respondents supported the demand of “dual universal suffrage”. Hence, it can be seen that the wider public has a strong inclination to support more democracy for all. Indeed, this can be reflected by the pro-Democracy camp taking a landslide of almost 90% of all seats in the district council elections last year, as voters “dissatisfied with the current social situation” turned out in droves to express their anger and disagreement with the line of action the government has been taking. In interviews with Guardian reporters, voters said “we want our voices heard”, and in reference to police brutality, “it’s your [Hong Kong’s government’s] job to serve people, and not beat people up if they don’t listen to you.” 

UK & the west: words with no action 

Apart from a strong support for further democratisation at home, the international world also generally supports the Hong Kong protesters. For two years in a row (20192020), “Hong Kong protesters/ Nathan Law [a prominent pro-Democracy activist]” has been voted the The TIMES Person of the Year by its readers. Along with cries of “Stand with HK, Fight for Freedom” and “Save 12 HK Youths (arrested recently by mainland China)” on Twitter and other social media platforms, it shows many individuals globally not only sympathise, but actively support the cause of Hong Kong’s protesters as they fight for freedoms and democracy currently enjoyed by individuals in the west. 

However, at a governmental or organisational level, the international world has supported HK protesters with more words than action; at least before the new national security law was imposed. Since June last year, the UK, Hong Kong’s former coloniser and a signatory in the Sino-British agreement,  issued many statements regarding the situation in Hong Kong, calling for “political dialogue” and asking the HK government to “avoid aggravating and instead reduce tensions.” The EU has responded in a similar manner, calling for “restraint, de-escalation and dialogue” and that “fundamental freedoms …must continue to be upheld.” Yet, no actual actions have been taken until July this year. And since then, even though multiple countries have suspended their extradition treaty with Hong Kong, and the UK announced a “lifeboat” scheme for HK BN(O) holders and their descendents, all of these actions seem to provide an “escape route” for Hong Kong citizens, instead of directly promoting freedoms and democracy in Hong Kong, or pressurising Hong Kong and Chinese authorities to respect these fundamental human rights. 

The only major power who has taken direct action in this matter is the US, who sanctioned twelve officials they claim to be “undermining HK’s autonomy and restricting the freedom of expression or assembly of the citizens of HK”. Yet, the Trump government have praised dictatorships like Russia and China in the past, causing speculation on whether they truly support democracy and freedom for all. 

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights: a toothless department 

Players in this event also include supranational organisations like the UN, especially its Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), tasked with protecting human rights globally. But once again, its actions have been mild and constrained.  Akin to the UK and the EU, the OHCHR has only issued statements calling for authorities to “act with restraint” and respect “the rights of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and the right to participate in public affairs”. While it can be argued that this is a big step in itself, as the OHCHR has rarely issued statements like these in the past, its relative powerlessness in this crisis has sparked discussion around whether or not legal-binding powers, including powers of sanctions, should be delegated to it to add “teeth” to their words. Yet, some worry that this would politicalise the OHCHR, damaging its prospects and credibility in the long run. 

Whatever the conclusion for the OHCHR, current events in Hong Kong are a step backwards towards achieving SDG Goal 16 worldwide. With the new national security law and other measures intended to install fear in the city, this directly opposes goal 16.10, which calls for the world to “ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms.” Adding on, a prolonged delay in allowing all citizens to vote for their own Chief Executive, and the whole of the Legislative Council, also contradicts goal 16.7, “ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels”, as a full democracy with universal suffrage is the easiest way to bring all citizen’s voices into the government. 

A broken promise 

Although support for retaining freedoms and increasing democracy in Hong Komg is strong both locally and globally, the actions (or lack of action) taken by the international world, and the manner in which the Chinese Communist Party imposed a national security bill in Hong Kong in June of this year certainly makes Hong Kong’s future bleak and numbered. As more and more Hong Kongers plan, or decide to emigrate the city (44% in a recent survey), prospects of democracy and freedom for those that remain look ever so dim. Yet, pending on a black swan event, there may be a day when the leaders in mainland China realise that to “control”, or stabilise Hong Kong, they must grant the city more democracy and maintain its current freedoms. 

And they would do well to be reminded of the time left for China to fulfil its promises to the people of Hong Kong — there’s 9,751 days left until the end of the 50 year’s of freedom guaranteed by the British and Chinese governments . And the clock is ticking. 

Header Image via Unsplash

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