Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 6 June 2024

 

The Shadow of Tiananmen Falls on Hong Kong

The anniversary of the massacre coincides with verdicts in the trial of the pro-democracy activists known as the Hong Kong 47.
A photo of an elderly protester surrounded by police.
A pro-democracy demonstrator shouts slogans outside a court in Hong Kong, in February.Photograph by Peter Parks / AFP / Getty

In the spring of 1989, Chinese students protesting for democracy chose a site with unique symbolic power: Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. For centuries, the area has been marked by a colossal edifice known as tiananmen—the gate of heavenly peace—where leaders held forth. In 1949, Mao Zedong, standing atop the gate, which overlooks the square, declared the founding of the People’s Republic, and, for decades afterward, schoolchildren sang a jingle called “I Love Beijing’s Tiananmen,” in which Chairman Mao will “guide us into the future.”

Today, that lyric sounds grimly like prophecy. On June 4, 1989, the Communist Party turned its tanks and soldiers on the protesters, killing, in the least, hundreds of people (a precise number remains unknown) and deflecting the democratic wave that toppled the Soviet Union and its allies in the Eastern Bloc. As China approaches the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, the incident has been effaced from its official history to such an extent that young people scarcely know the details of the anniversary they are supposed to avoid. (In June, 2022, censors blocked a popular live streamer named Li Jiaqi after he displayed an ice cream in the shape of a tank; it is possible that Li, who was born in 1992, had no idea that it would be a sensitive image.) But, even as Tiananmen has been scrubbed from public memory, its shadow is more visible than ever in the resurgence of authoritarianism in China and abroad, in step with the nation’s expanding realm of influence.

The reach of that philosophy—governance by repression—became manifest on Thursday, when a Hong Kong court, in a landmark trial, convicted fourteen democracy activists on charges of subversion. It’s the largest case yet brought under a national-security law that was imposed by Beijing in 2020; another thirty-one defendants had already pleaded guilty, and two were acquitted for lack of evidence. The trial of the Hong Kong 47, as they’re known, has its roots in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council elections that same year, when prominent activists held an unofficial primary to choose a slate of pro-democracy candidates, and drew an unexpectedly high turnout—some thirteen per cent of the city’s registered voters. The Hong Kong government postponed the election and later staged predawn raids on people involved, including the legal scholar Benny Tai, the former student leader Joshua Wong, and a number of former lawmakers. Most pleaded guilty, in hopes of having their sentences reduced by up to a third; others, who were convicted, face sentences ranging from three years to life in prison, an astonishing potential punishment that Human Rights Watch described as “blatantly erasing the basic human rights guaranteed in Hong Kong laws.”

The legal drama leaves little doubt as to how far Beijing has hobbled political dissent in the former British colony since it was returned to Chinese control, in 1997. At the time, Beijing said that it would allow Hong Kong fifty years to retain its way of life—including freedoms of expression and assembly, and other political rights that were not permitted on the mainland. But, in practice, that autonomy was short-lived. By 2014, the mainland government was taking steps to require that Hong Kong’s chief executive be drawn from candidates vetted by Beijing. That move touched off protests, rendered iconic by the carrying of yellow umbrellas, and a decade of periodic unrest and deepening repression, as the government sought to crush the remnants of a once vibrant political culture.

China’s political cosmos is extending in other directions, too. When the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, visited Beijing in May, his counterpart, Xi Jinping, greeted him on a red carpet laid out in Tiananmen Square, cheered by phalanxes of children. Putin was not only obliging himself of a treasured refuge from an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court last year and a chance to flatter his economic patrons—since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in 2022, trade between Russia and China has grown at least sixty per cent—he was also acknowledging a tectonic shift in Russia’s view of the world, one that goes far beyond the temporary circumstances of war. Moscow’s élites are sending their children to study in Beijing and Shanghai. (Putin said that his family members were learning Mandarin.) As more Western writers, such as Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, refuse to publish their work while the war is raging, Chinese authors are filling part of the literary void, thanks to Chinese-government grants for translation. Alexander Gabuev, the director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, has written of Russia that “never in its entire history has it been so entwined with China.”

Ever since China and Russia signed a “no limits” partnership in 2022, recognizing a broad conjunction of interests, they have sought to become the locomotive of economic and political power in the Global South. (The Cambodian government last week renamed the Third Ring Road, which runs around Phnom Penh, Xi Jinping Boulevard, as thanks for China’s financing of the road’s construction, the Khmer Times reported.) At bottom, Russia and China are joined by a belief that their greatest threat is the United States. Avril Haines, the Director of National Intelligence, recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee that, in a potential conflict with Taiwan, “China definitely wants Russia to be working with them, and we see no reason why they wouldn’t.”

But nowhere has the creep of Beijing values been more jarring than in Hong Kong, where barristers still wear horsehair wigs as a proud symbol to the global business and legal community that Hong Kong has tried to hold fast to its tradition of the rule of law. In the past decade, the cycles of unrest and tightening control have damaged Hong Kong’s reputation as a hub for business in Asia, and, in recent months, local authorities have strained to lure back foreign investors. Hong Kong politicians who are allied with Beijing have painted the tough new security laws, and the effort to dismantle the opposition, as a step toward restoring stability. “The focus is on economic development now,” Lau Siu-kai, a pro-Beijing consultant, told the Financial Times last week.

In fact, verdicts of the kind handed down in the Hong Kong 47 case could have precisely the opposite effect. Tom Kellogg, the executive director of the Georgetown Center for Asian Law, told me, “This verdict shows that the independence of the Hong Kong judiciary is deeply compromised. It is not what it once was.” Kellogg, who is an expert on Chinese legal issues, was struck by a range of technical legal flaws in the verdict. “I’ve read a lot of legal decisions coming out of Hong Kong. It’s a high-functioning judiciary that knows how to do human-rights adjudication, and they’re just not doing it here. So, if you’re an international business, you could say, ‘Well, this doesn’t apply to me—the National Security Law is mostly used to crack down on human-rights activists and opposition politicians.’ All true, but when you look at the history of how this stuff plays out on the mainland, you see political control of the judiciary start to bleed into other spaces. So you have to ask yourself a question, ‘How much can I rely on the Hong Kong judiciary to protect my commercial interests?’ I’m not saying it’s happened yet, but that’s now a growing concern.” He added, “The Hong Kong story for the foreseeable future is going to be the national-security crackdown.”

Indeed, in the same week of the verdict in the Hong Kong 47 case, fresh evidence emerged of how sharply the local legal climate has been transformed. Until recently, Hong Kong had served as a safe place for peaceful commemorations of the anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, in vigils and memorials. But, in a sign of how the sensibilities of Beijing have inspired local efforts to demonstrate ideological fealty, the government of Hong Kong enacted its own security law in March—much like a state law working in tandem with federal law. And, this past Tuesday, the government made the first arrests under the new local law—accusing six people, including the well-known activist Chow Hang-tung, of illegal social-media posts, intended, as police put it, to “incite netizens to organize or participate in illegal activities.”

The posts in question seem to make references to the thirty-fifth anniversary of Tiananmen, but the topic is now considered too sensitive in Hong Kong for even the authorities to discuss casually. In the official description of the arrests, the police simply mentioned “an approaching sensitive date.” When reporters asked Hong Kong’s Secretary for Security, Chris Tang, whether the police were referring to June 4th, he replied, “The date itself is not important.” In truth, as a landmark in the history of authoritarian politics, June 4th has rarely been more important. ♦

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