Tragic case of crushed civil liberties in Hong Kong, China’s growing authoritarianism

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By Archita Srivastava*

For the longest time, Hong Kong to me was synonymous to a towering metropolis, steeped in ancient Chinese traditions and British urbanity. School textbooks relay their history as a positive engagement between the East and the West, a mere clinical engagement carefully evading its turbulent past. It was only in my law school that I learnt the city’s very struggle to assert itself. Hence when I was to research on Hong Kong protests as part of my assignment, many new things were learnt and former perceptions shattered.

Hong Kong was once a British colony. It was ceded by China to Britain in the First Opium Wars in 1841 for a period of ninety nine years. Britain’s liberal policies and capitalist economic system contributed to the ‘westernisation’ of this island and transformed it into one of the greatest world economies. Hence, a Joint Declaration was signed between China and Britain to ease the assimilation of the residents of Hong Kong back into China by laying down the terms of the final handover. As per the declaration, Hong Kong was to be governed as a special administrative region under ‘one country, two systems’ till 2047. This entailed Hong Kong to retain its capitalist economy, its civil and political freedoms like freedoms of speech, association, right to universal suffrage, right to have its own head i.e. the Chief Executive, and have an independent judiciary. Most crucially, the state of Hong Kong was to be governed as per its own constitution called the Basic Law which was to embody the structure and method of Hong Kong’s governance along with all the promised rights.

China celebrated this handover as a reclamation of its sovereignty, a rectification of the humiliation of the past but the people of Hong Kong stood sceptical of all the promises made by the Chinese state in light of the brutal massacre of the protestors at Tiananmen Square.[1]

The core essence of Hong Kong lies in its freedoms that is regarded by its residents in high esteem. Hence when a constrictive law like National Security Act, 2020 is implemented the protests are inevitable.

On the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong handover, on 1 July 2017, President Xi Jinpig warned the people of Hong Kong from undermining the sovereignty of China, and Hong Kong’s Basic Law by crossing the ‘red line’.[2]  National Security underlines this sentiment by criminalising any act of separation, subversion, terrorism and collusion with a foreign power. The people of Hong Kong are apprehensive over the wide interpretative powers resting with the state to effectively silence any form of dissent under this act, thereby incriminating them. This anxiety stands magnified in view of the extradition of certain ‘special cases’ to China for trial, severely compromising upon the independence of Hong Kong’s Judiciary. Further, the establishment of national security offices, as an enforcement agencies under this act render the existing law enforcement agencies within Hong Kong merely redundant. This signifies the decay of democratic institutions by an authoritarian regime. The administration of Hong Kong defends this legislation as a means to restore the order back to Hong Kong in lieu of the disruptions caused by previous years’ extradition bill protests. However, the application of this law beyond Hong Kong’s jurisdiction and to any citizen of a country, shows that this law does not only aim to silence its own residents but rest of the world as well.

This law coming down heavily on the freedom of speech is indicative of the growing influence of China’s censorship in Hong Kong. With the implementation of a law that aims to silence dissent, the state has acted with heightened impunity by arresting numerous protestors, outlawing any slogan or banner that criticises the Chinese government or demands liberation.

The chilling effects of this act stands amplified in the view of the coronavirus pandemic that prompted the state to push its own agenda under the guise of public health emergency.[3] The suspension of annual Tiananmen Square vigil and the postponement of district elections are indicative of state trying to manipulate the very essence of Hong Kong that distinguishes it from the communist China.

Unfortunately, these state actions are endorsed under the rhetoric of nationalism.[4]  It labels any pro-democracy supporters as terrorists, brainwashed by the ‘western ‘countries’. Around 12 pro-democracy candidates stand debarred from contesting election and six arrest warrants have been issued for the activists who have been staying abroad. This becomes crucial in the light of pro-democracy activists acquiring majority of seats in the district elections, the only avenue where the candidates are chosen via universal suffrage.

Hence, the countries must unite under the common rubric of international human rights and help the suffering populace of Hong Kong. The sincerity of commitment to end oppression by collective action of the nation states is best represented by the abolition of Apartheid in South Africa. This was achieved by imposition of numerous trade sanctions against South Africa, its disqualification from all cultural, educational and sports events including Olympics and the total suspension of South Africa’s activity within the General Assembly. Solidarities have been extended by Britain and USA who have offered the people of Hong Kong citizenship and levied mandatory sanctions against any individual or institution that contributes to the failure of Hong Kong’s autonomy under Hong Kong Autonomy Act. It is the time for all the countries to revive the lofty and genuine aspiration with which the human rights discourse was established and ensure that Hong Kong is not reduced to another tragic tale of a withered autonomy.

*5th year LLB student at National Law University, Delhi

References:

[1]Alvin Y.H. Cheung, ‘Melancholy in Hong Kong’ (2014) 31(4) World Policy Journal <http://www.jstor.com/stable/43290342> accessed 14.7.2020.

[2]Beijing’s Red Line in Hong Kong, (Amnesty International 2019) 8 <https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/ASA1709442019ENGLISH.PDF> accessed 14.7.2020.

[3]Mark P. Lagon, ‘The Umbrella Movement: A Pivotal Moment for Democracy in Hong Kong, ( Council for International Relations 20 November 2014)<https://www.cfr.org/report/umbrella-movement-pivotal-moment-democracy-hong-kong> accessed 12.7.2020.

[4]‘I am Not Chinese’: Examining Hong Kong’s Democratic Protests’ (EPW Engage , 24 July 2019) <https://www.epw.in/engage/article/hong-kong-protest-carrie-lam-extradition-china>accessed 11.7.2020.

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