When speaking last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed something that all too many of us have come to know. Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from China.
This wasn’t always the case though, and immediately following its hand over in 1997, many hoped that Beijing would adhere to the “one country, two systems” principle that ostensibly was there to safeguard the freedom of Hongkongers in their economic and political affairs. The departure of the United Kingdom, which had governed the territory first as a colony and then a British Dependent Territory since 1841, could have and, indeed, should have marked a new era for both the people of Hong Kong and China—if not the world. One in which cooperation, development, and mutual respect was a hallmark, rather than a side note, regardless of a country’s particular ideology.
And, for a brief moment, it seemed to be true. Reality quickly set in though.
Proposed amendments to Hong Kong Basic Law Article 23, which among other things, threatened to erode a most basic freedom, that of speech, set off a series of mass protests in 2003. And, while protesters were arguably successful here, it became clear to Hongkongers their freedoms were no longer guaranteed.
Events that followed only reinforced this notion, including the arrest of Chinese human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, in 2009 and an increasingly violent crackdown by government forces in wake of the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement. The central issue here being proposed reforms to the Hong Kong electoral system that allowed the Chinese Communist Party to pre-screen candidates for the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, thereby denying universal suffrage as promised in Hong Kong Basic Law Article 45.
This was then followed by the Causeway Bay Books disappearance, in which it emerged that a number of Hong Kong booksellers who sold literature banned on the mainland were kidnapped, later being forced to give staged confessions on television.
Steadily, but surely, the pro-Beijing camp in Hong Kong has grown ever more aggressive in seeking to silence any dissent. Something again demonstrated in the 2019-2020 protests, which have seen widely documented examples of police brutality and misconduct. Stemming from a proposed extradition bill, the protests have shifted focus to a wide variety of pressing issues, including: universal suffrage and establishing an independent commission to investigate police behavior to, most recently, opposing a national security law then under consideration by China’s National People’s Congress that would bypass Hong Kong lawmakers and, without exaggeration, put an end to the special administrative region’s autonomy.
Pro-democracy law makers have been dragged out of Hong Kong’s legislative chamber, mass arrests of protesters and their supporters have occurred, and some (including 21-year-old Sin Ka-ho) have received lengthy, multi-year prison sentences for “rioting.”
To echo the words of those gathered outside the armored police van, “There’s no riot, only tyranny.”
Hong Kong represents the latest chapter in Beijing’s aggressive posturing, which not only threatens regional security – including that of our allies – but international order. A growing number of potential flash-points from the South China Sea and Taiwan, to ongoing incursions by Chinese vessels near islands administered by Japan and skirmishes along the Sino-Indian border, likewise, demand our attention. Of course, the global pandemic demonstrates our interconnectedness, vulnerability, and urgent need for proactive policy measures in this regard as well.
While issues here at home, rather understandably, have overshadowed events in Hong Kong, it remains important to prepare for the post-coronavirus world we will be stepping into in due time. Beijing certainly is doing so and we should too. If anything, Hong Kong gives us an indication of their course.
And with the details of China’s national security law for Hong Kong now known, their leadership has clearly taken a stance at odds with the aspiration of many Hongkongers. Among other things, it empowers China to set up a national security agency, not bound by local laws. Authorities can surveil and wire-tap persons suspected of endangering national security. Anyone convicted of violating security legislation will not be allowed to stand in any future elections. The law will apply to permanent and non-permanent residents in Hong Kong. And, mainland authorities will exercise jurisdiction in so-called “complex cases.”
Freedom isn’t free and, unfortunately, Hongkongers are now experiencing this firsthand—they are not the only to have done so. But, the world needs to pay attention.