Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 3 June 2019


This just in from The New York Times:

GÖTTINGEN, Germany — When the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 4, 1989, many Hong Kongers watched in horror on their TVs. A few days before, one million of them had marched in solidarity with the rebellious Chinese gathered in the square to ask for more liberalism and democracy from the Chinese authorities. Thirty years on, it is Hong Kong that is fighting for democratic values — for its very political survival, actually — against another onslaught by the same Communist government in Beijing.
The situation is dire. The Hong Kong government, now apparently under the direct influence of Beijing, has proposed amending existing extradition laws to give unprecedented power to Hong Kong’s leader — an official essentially chosen by the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) — to arrest people in Hong Kong and send them to China to face trial. The new bill would apply to anyone — a Hong Kong citizen, a mainlander, even foreigners traveling through the city — accused by the Chinese authorities of having broken Chinese law.

The Chinese legal system is famously corrupt and, too often, a tool of repression. The new extradition law could be used to squelch any form of political opposition or dissent. Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, has called it “the worst thing” to happen to the city since Britain handed control over it to China in 1997. When the legislation passes — which now seems near certain, and imminent — it will spell the death of Hong Kong as the world has known it.

In 2014, at age 21, I was one of the tens of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement. We demanded that genuinely free elections be held in the city, as set out in its Basic Law. Yet the government ordered liberal use of tear gas against us; some protesters were severely beaten in dark street corners. One could say that after more than two months of sit-ins, the Umbrella Movement failed: None of our demands were met.
But even then I believed, as I do now, that our resistance wasn’t futile; the courage and commitment of the people who had rallied — many of them young — gave me hope. It still does.

I write this essay today, 30 years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, because as the Chinese government grows more and more repressive at home and beyond, we need to remember, tap and revive the ideals and the spirit of both June 4 and the Umbrella Movement.

In early 2015, a few friends from the Umbrella Movement and I founded Hong Kong Indigenous, an activist group that later became a political party. Our purpose was to defend Hong Kong’s existing freedoms and the rule of law, and further build democracy, while saving the city’s distinctive language, culture and identity — all of which we thought the government was steadily snuffing out.

We organized many rallies, including to protest the hordes of smugglers who were coming from the mainland, jamming the city’s streets, to stock up on baby formula and aspirin. In 2015, the Chinese government changed its visa policy, limiting cross-border visits and easing the problem. This was an important victory for us, as it showed us that activism could bring results.
In early 2016, a peaceful protest we organized to preserve the annual Lunar New Year night market in Mongkok (which the government had said should be suspended) degenerated after the surprise appearance and provocations of hundreds of police officers in riot gear. The authorities seized on the opportunity.

About 40 of us were charged with rioting under the Public Order Ordinance, a long-dormant but draconian holdover from the British colonial era that the United Nations Human Rights Council had denounced in 2013.
Despite that, a few weeks later, Edward Leung Tin-kei, a graduate of the University of Hong Kong and a member of Hong Kong Indigenous, ran in a by-election for a seat in the local Legislature, known as LegCo, and did well. The party’s platform encouraged Hong Kong to keep its distance from China and promoted what makes the city unique. Edward then set out to run in the general election in September 2016 — only to be disqualified on grounds that he didn’t seem committed enough to the notion that Hong Kong was an inalienable part of China(despite having signed the requisite forms to that effect).
Hong Kong Indigenous transferred its support to another localist party, which fielded two candidates. Both won, and then were disqualified, too. We had been disenfranchised.
But the Beijing–Hong Kong government axis didn’t stop there.

Edward and I had a mutual understanding: One of us would stay and fight the rioting charges against us in court; the other would flee and fight for Hong Kong from the outside. It was a painful choice for us both. Edward flew back from overseas to stand trial. Alan Li Tung-sing, another member of Hong Kong Indigenous, and I came to Germany in November 2017 and received refugee status in May 2018.

Last June, Edward was sentenced to six years in jail. About 20 other protesters, mostly students, were handed sentences, many of them prison terms of three years or more. In April, leaders of the Umbrella Movement, including the highly respected university professors Benny Tai Yiu-Ting and Chan Kin-man, were also given prison terms for the 2014 protests. And now, the extradition bill is pending.

Back in 2016, a hot topic was what would happen to Hong Kong after 2047, the year that the city’s current, special status is supposed to elapse. Some of us believed then that a referendum could be held under the Basic Law to determine Hong Kong’s future — perhaps even secure its independence from China. Beijing’s actions since then show that there is no chance of this happening. Today, I advocate the release of political prisoners and the full restoration of freedoms already guaranteed by Hong Kong’s existing laws.
Sixty years ago the Dalai Lama fled Tibet to escape persecution by the C.C.P. Thirty years ago, Chinese dissidents fled mainland China after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Now, some of us have fled Hong Kong.
The Chinese government keeps repressing, but people keep resisting.

Ray Wong Toi-yeung is a political activist from Hong Kong and a refugee in Germany.

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