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The Lonesome Death of Hong Kong

It is no surprise that COVID-19 has pushed Hong Kong and the protests that have roiled the territory out of the public eye in recent months. But out of sight should not mean out of mind, because the city’s fate will tell us much about the sort of China the world will be dealing with in the decades ahead.

The sword of Damocles that has been hanging above Hong Kong since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power has finally dropped. By taking advantage of the world’s preoccupation with the COVID-19 pandemic to impose draconian new security laws on the city, Xi has in effect annulled the agreement that has governed the relationship between China and Hong Kong for almost a quarter-century.

It is no surprise that COVID-19 has pushed Hong Kong and the protests that have roiled the territory out of the public eye in recent months. But out of sight should not mean out of mind, because the city’s fate will tell us much about the sort of China the world will be dealing with in the decades ahead.

Hong Kong’s prospects hang on whether or not a single agreement concluded nearly four decades ago can still be salvaged. In the 1984 Joint Declaration regarding the United Kingdom’s future handover of Hong Kong to China, the city was promised that it would be run after 1997 on the basis of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s “one country, two systems” formula. Although this model probably was devised as much, if not more, with Taiwan in mind, it helped both the UK and China to evade a tangle of moral and political problems concerning Hong Kong.

These problems included the circumstances – nowadays indefensible – in which Britain had acquired Hong Kong in the nineteenth century, as well as the fact that more than half of the city’s inhabitants were refugees from communism on the mainland. Furthermore, and embarrassingly for the UK, the terms under which the territory had been obtained meant that it could neither decide its own future nor be prepared like virtually every other British colony for eventual independence. Hong Kong had to be denied self-determination: that was the price of history.

Still, “one country, two systems” allowed Hong Kong to continue with its governance and freedoms intact, and with a high degree of local autonomy. Under the terms of the Joint Declaration – in effect an international treaty lodged at the United Nations – this arrangement was to last until 2047.

By and large, the model survived without too many problems for well over a decade after the 1997 handover. Admittedly, China rowed back from its promises regarding democracy, the National People’s Congress occasionally ruffled feathers with its legislative oversight of the Basic Law and the rule of law in Hong Kong, and China’s Liaison Office in the city increasingly interfered in local affairs. But, overall, most skeptics about Hong Kong’s prospects were mollified during this period.

In recent years, however, the Chinese government has tightened its grip, prompting massive protests by residents. And while Hong Kong’s future remains uncertain, how the city fares matters enormously for supporters of liberal democracy everywhere.

The change for the worse in the China-Hong Kong relationship began with the elevation of Xi as China’s paramount leader in 2012. Unfortunately, Xi’s ascent coincided with the selection of the unpopular C.Y. Leung as Hong Kong’s chief executive.

Under Xi, the Communist Party of China reversed previous progress in separating the party from the Chinese government. The CPC has re-established party control everywhere and cracked down on dissident activity – including the emergence of civil-society organizations and the increase in legal resources available to those charged with political offenses. Xi’s regime also has incarcerated about a million Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang and has set about destroying some of their religious sites.

At the same time, the Chinese government began to tighten the screws on Hong Kong, emphasizing “one country” (or, more accurately, one party) but not “two systems.” Local United Front communist activists stepped up their activities, and the Liaison Office interfered in the city’s administration with more alacrity than ever. Attempts to introduce civic education that flagrantly promoted communist ideology in schools led to large protests by educators and pupils in 2012. Although the plans had to be dropped, they remain on the Chinese government’s agenda.

Perhaps more alarmingly, security agents abducted Hong Kong publishers and booksellers whom the Chinese leadership disliked. The city’s government looked the other way as one, Gui Minhai, was sentenced to ten years in prison in mainland China and, like others, forced to make televised confessions of criminality. Any sign of independent criticism of Xi’s government in the media led to vilification and physical assault.

A mounting sense that Hong Kong’s freedom was being stifled resulted in the 2014 “yellow umbrella” democracy protests, led in part by some of the students who previously had demonstrated against the politicization of the school curriculum. These protests were overwhelmingly peaceful, with demonstrators even tidying up after themselves and doing homework during their sit-ins. In fact, China’s communists must have envied this sort of moral and civic education.

But the young protesters got nowhere with their calls for a more open, democratic process for electing Hong Kong’s chief executive and Legislative Council. The government, which increasingly seemed to be controlled by mainland Chinese officials from a villa across the border in Shenzhen, refused to budge and rejected any serious dialogue with the demonstrators. Former Hong Kong finance minister John Tsang, by far the most popular candidate for chief executive in 2017, was blackballed by the regime in Beijing partly because he advocated precisely such a dialogue.

The choice of Carrie Lam to succeed Leung as Hong Kong’s leader that year made it clear that Xi’s regime ruled out building bridges with the protesters. The city’s government made no effort to engage with its critics, and universities were pressured to discourage free speech and inquiry (which is thought to have led to the 2014 demonstrations). It was hardly surprising, therefore, that some activists started issuing more extreme demands, including self-determination or even independence for Hong Kong.

This played into the hands of CPC hardliners and risked weakening support for the changes that the democracy activists wanted to bring about. I warned about this at big meetings of students in Hong Kong in both 2016 and 2017. No one from the city’s government spoke to them in the same way. Instead, the government, under pressure from Beijing, connived in stripping elected legislators of their mandates and relied on what often seemed like trivial grounds to block democratic candidates such as Joshua Wong from standing in elections.

This was the background to the unrest that began in Hong Kong in March 2019 and grew dramatically that June. The trigger was the city government’s proposal to allow the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China. But it was pulled amid a growing sense that Hong Kong’s government and its masters in Beijing were whittling away the city’s freedoms while failing to address widespread social concerns such as high housing costs.

Lam herself may well have been the extradition bill’s principal author; she certainly appeared to be bending over backwards to anticipate and accommodate Chinese demands. The majority of Hong Kong’s citizens understandably feared that the proposal would destroy the firewall between the city’s rule of law and what the CPC decides is the law on the mainland.

Even when the demonstrations swelled rapidly and attracted two million of Hong Kong’s 7.4 million residents, the Liaison Office and the city government refused to recognize that citizens were venting strong and heartfelt sentiments. Instead, Lam and others repeatedly suggested that the demonstrations and unrest were being stoked and even organized by external “black hands.” Such claims were insulting and demonstrated profound ignorance about Hong Kong’s people.

Chinese leaders initially vetoed attempts by Hong Kong’s government to back down over the extradition bill, before further demonstrations eventually persuaded Lam and the government in Beijing to drop the proposal. But the protests continued. Increasingly, it seemed that the city government had virtually given up governing, becoming instead a cat’s paw administration fully under China’s control.

Actual governance thus was left in the hands of Hong Kong’s police force, which used ever more questionable and aggressive tactics against the “cockroaches” involved in the protests. As tear gas replaced politics, a radical fringe of demonstrators resorted to unacceptable violence.

The violence cannot be condoned. But, as desperation among Hong Kong’s citizens grows, we need to understand what caused it. After all, Hong Kong was once a model of moderation. In the 1990s, the city had an exemplary and popular police force and – according to Interpol – lower levels of crime than Singapore. But if people believe that they are getting nowhere with peaceful protest and appeals to dialogue concerning issues about which they care passionately, then they turn to alternatives. That is particularly true if, as in Hong Kong, a lack of political engagement by the government is accompanied by forceful (to say the least) public-order policing.

The resulting imbalance is striking. More than 7,000 people have reportedly been arrested as a result of the demonstrations, including such venerable figures as the barrister Martin Lee, now aged 81. But I am not aware of any disciplinary proceedings against police officers – despite video footage, photographs, and a wealth of other evidence of brutal behavior.

I cannot believe that the police officers whom I was proud to call my friends when I was governor of Hong Kong would be guilty of this sort of behavior, or would try to justify it. But the fact is that Lam’s government, wearing Chinese handcuffs, has put the police service in an exceptionally difficult position, which, combined with clearly irresponsible leadership, has caused it to fall far below its former standards.

A Reuters opinion poll conducted toward the end of last year gives some idea of how Hong Kong’s police service, and the city overall, might return to normal. According to the poll, 59% of Hong Kong residents supported the protest movement, and more than one-third had attended an anti-government demonstration. In addition, 67% either “strongly” or “somewhat” opposed independence from China model, while only 17% favored it. Almost half the respondents blamed the Hong Kong government for the crisis, and 74% said they wanted an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality during the protests.

The outcome of last November’s district council elections in the city largely reflected these views. Supporters of China’s government had claimed that the elections would show that a silent majority of Hong Kong’s citizens supported the Lam government and opposed the demonstrators. But amid a record turnout, the pro-democracy movement gained control of 17 of the city’s 18 councils and tripled their representation. Pro-Beijing parties, by contrast, lost more than 240 of the 300 or so seats they had previously held.

Following the election, Wang Zhimin, the head of the Liaison Office, was dismissed, having presumably advised his superiors appallingly. This was not the first time that the Chinese leadership had been misinformed – or left totally uninformed – because its agents had told it what it wanted to hear rather than what was really happening. “Seek truth from facts,” the Book of Han advised in the first century AD. But totalitarian regimes find that difficult, because facts so often run counter to their ideology (as sometimes occurs with political parties in democracies as well). There is nothing necessarily wrong with dogma, but everything necessarily goes wrong with dogmatism.

Soon after his arrival in Hong Kong, the new director of the Liaison Office, Luo Huining, said that the city should return to the right track. But that advice might be better directed to his superiors in Beijing, and to Lam’s administration, which is supposed to govern the city.

If Hong Kong’s position is to be salvaged after the imposition of the new security laws, it is imperative that the CPC find some means to recommit to the Joint Declaration and “one country, two systems.” As a practical step, the party could reaffirm its backing for the city’s rule of law and the independence of its judiciary. The latter still shines like a beacon in Hong Kong, as Beverley McLachlin, a former chief justice of Canada who sits on the city’s Court of Final Appeal, recently noted.

It also would be helpful if CPC leaders did not seem determined to follow their imposition of the security law by reviving the idea that Hong Kong needs a strong dose of “patriotic education,” as a recent Orwellian document from the CPC Central Committee put it.

A few phrases from that publication give an indication of what is intended. Those living in “New China” are advised “to adhere to the unity of loving the party, the country, and socialism” (note the order of precedence). People, apparently including in Hong Kong, should work to “strengthen national security education and national defense education.”

While the prescribed education covers “one country, two systems,” the overall thrust of the document assaults the sort of freedoms that people in Hong Kong are keen to defend. The injunction that they should “resolutely oppose historical nihilism” presumably means that they are expected to wipe out any memories of the many events that encouraged Chinese people to flee to a safe haven in colonial Hong Kong. The People’s Republic seems to depend on rewriting or obliterating the country’s history to maintain its grip on power.

The outcome of the current struggle in Hong Kong is important not only for the city and its current and former sovereigns, but also in terms of China’s international role in the century ahead. Hong Kong’s new normal – whatever it turns out to be – will say much about the relationship between authoritarian and liberal-democratic regimes. The West has paid considerable attention in recent years to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attacks on Western open societies. But it should take more seriously the CPC’s more concerted and sustained assault on the beliefs and organizing principles of most Western societies.

In fact, the CPC helpfully listed the challenges that China poses to open democracies in its “Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere,” an internal document leaked by the brave dissident Gao Yu, who was sentenced to seven years in prison for this service to the rest of the world. The tough sentence meted out to a woman in her seventies, though later reduced to five years and changed to house arrest, tends to confirm the authenticity of the document, which apparently was distributed to party and government officials and to China’s armed forces.

There is growing evidence that China is seeking to implement this communiqué from North America to Europe through so-called wolf-warrior diplomacy. This approach includes efforts to mobilize the Chinese diaspora and to influence Western politics, media, and business. And it often involves wholly unacceptable behavior that should be called out, from political attacks on government ministers, journalists, and academics to cybercrime and intellectual-property theft. But some Western governments appear to believe that they will miss huge economic opportunities in China if they stand up for what they claim are their core values.

I am not yet prepared to argue that the West should boycott China or try to cut it off from the international community. I just think that China’s government must be encouraged to play by the same international rules as the rest of us. The world would be safer for liberal democracies if we created a values-based framework for our dealings with China. We should do this together and not allow ourselves to be picked off one by one by mercantilist intimidation.

Behaving in a way that corresponds with our political values does not threaten economic catastrophe. The idea that you can do business with China only if you say and do what its leaders want has always been nonsense – including in the case of the UK. The supposed cornucopia that we were assured would come with the “golden era” of Britain’s dealings with China turned out to be self-serving guff.

The West should not be browbeaten into embarrassed silence in the face of China’s violation of its obligations regarding Hong Kong, a city that exemplifies many of the values that Xi’s CPC wants to bury. Around the world, liberal democracies must stand up for themselves if governance based on the rule of law is to survive. The West therefore has a vital stake in the ongoing struggle in Hong Kong. That struggle will inevitably continue as long as the city’s citizens fear for their future. The outcome will affect us all.

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