In a 2010 article about Hong Kong’s road to universal suffrage, Chinese state newspaper China Daily went out of its way to soften Beijing’s anti-democratic rhetoric, going so far as to quote 18th century French philosopher Voltaire’s famous sentence: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
China Daily argued that “the Central Government is very supportive of democratic development in Hong Kong,” and that the future of democracy in the Special Administrative Region (SAR) “is bright, but the road is not smooth.”
Those were the days when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), though reluctant to grant the former British colony more democracy, did not dare to say so openly, and rather begged the population not to be too impatient. The goal was clear, but the process was slow. “We hope the road to more democracy could be less bumpy and with less unnecessary sidetracking,” wrote the newspaper.
In 2008 the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (SCNPC) decided that the 2017 Chief Executive (CE) election may be implemented by universal suffrage. The Hong Kong government assured its citizens that the ultimate aim “of electing the CE and all members of the LegCo by universal suffrage [as] prescribed by the Basic Law” would some day be attained.
In a 2010 open letter to the citizens, Donald Tsang, the second Chief Executive of Hong Kong, stated: “I don’t want there to be any doubts about my government’s commitment to advancing democracy in Hong Kong.” There was a consensus in Hong Kong about universal suffrage as the objective to be achieved. The debate concerned the timing and method.
Then came Xi Jinping. And the “humane” face of Chinese Communism turned into the old-style stiff grimace of Maoist repression and brainwashing.
Under Xi, Hong Kong’s hopes for democratic reforms were thwarted. This led to the largest pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong’s history, the Umbrella Revolution of 2014. The Communist leader, however, did not cave. Luckily for him, he did not have to send tanks and troops against the people, as his predecessor Deng Xiaoping had. In mid-December the Hong Kong police removed the sites occupied by protesters without firing a shot.
On December 14 the only thing that remained of three main occupation sites was a small 84 square meter encampment in Causeway Bay. One day later this last stronghold of the movement was cleared and 17 people were arrested. 30 people, including then Scholarism leader Joshua Wong, had already been arrested in November. Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping will be remembered for having suppressed the most spontaneous, creative and enthusiastic displays of people’s love for their home, expressed in their desire to participate in public affairs.
After the Umbrella movement ended the Communist government left no doubt that the issue of democratic reform was over and that the disenfranchised Hong Kong citizens would have to stop challenging the central authorities once and for all. The signs that Beijing is intent on fully subduing the SAR are numerous and obvious.
In 2015 five Hong Kong booksellers critical of the CCP went missing under mysterious circumstances. It later became known that they were held in mainland China. Whether their detention was illegal and whether they were abducted by the mainland authorities remains unclear. This was an unprecedented act of interference in Hong Kong’s local affairs on the part of Beijing, possibly even a breach of ‘one country, two systems.’
In April of this year Wang Zhenmin, the legal chief for the central government’s liaison office, said at a conference held in Beijing that the issue of Hong Kong’s democracy will be off the table for 5 to 10 years: “Political reform has failed after so many years. [Hong Kong] cannot afford to dedicate energy to political reform in the next five or 10 years, but not to housing, people’s livelihoods and the economy,” he was quoted as saying. “Middle Eastern or other countries, having achieved universal suffrage, saw civil wars and internal conflicts, resulting in waves of refugees every single day.”
This week, the Hong Kong government arrested nine pro-democracy activists. Derek Lam and Ivan Lam, members of Joshua Wong’s Demosisto Party, were charged with unlawful assembly and causing disorder in public places for participating in protests in November of last year. The chairman and two members of the League of Social Democrats, two members of the Student Fight for Democracy group and the former chair of the Lingnan University student union were also detained by the authorities in connection with pro-democracy activities.
On April 26, two lawmakers of the pro-independence Youngspiration Party, Yau Wai-ching and Baggio Leung, were arrested and charged with unlawful assembly. The two young politicians had made headlines last year after they had used the swearing-in ceremony as lawmakers to promote anti-Chinese views. Leung and Yau unfurled banners that read: “Hong Kong is not China.”
They refused to declare allegiance to China and altered the wording of the oath. “I, Yau Wai-ching, do solemnly swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to the Hong Kong nation and will to the best protect and defend the values of Hong Kong,” Yau said. Leung and Yau were later disqualified from the Hong Kong Legislature for failing to take their oath properly.
On November 2, 2016, the duo had tried to storm the Legislative Council after they had been barred from entering the building. They subsequently scuffled with security guards. Four days later, around 13,000 protesters took to the streets in solidarity with Leung and Yau. The march ended in clashes with police.
On April 26 of this year Leung and Yau were arrested on charges of unlawful assembly in connection with the November 2 incident. Yau wrote on her Facebook page: “This morning at 7 a.m. the police arrested Yau Wai-ching and Baggio Leung and brought them to Central police station.”
Mainland Chinese media reported on the events in Hong Kong, emphasizing that the individuals arrested had taken part in “illegal demonstrations” in which “many people displayed Hong Kong independence slogans that read ‘Hong Kong Is Not China’, held Hong Kong independence banners, waved the British colonial flag.” The demonstrators “paralyzed traffic, damaged public facilities and disrupted social order, causing serious chaos” (社會秩序陷入嚴重混亂).
It seems clear that since Xi Jinping took office in 2012 the Communist Party’s stance towards Hong Kong has changed. From reluctant yet benign reassurances that democracy would eventually be implemented, Beijing has shifted to a tough, uncompromising position of rejecting democratization as a relevant issue, and of gradually dismantling Hong Kong’s unique, autonomous institutions.
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