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On the 70th Anniversary of China Communism Hong Kong reels from ‘one of its most violent days’

Hong Kong Fight for Freedom

The 70th anniversary of Communist Party rule in China was “one of Hong Kong’s most violent and chaotic days”, the city’s police chief has said.

An 18-year-old protester was shot in the chest with a live bullet – one of six live rounds fired by police.

Protesters – some armed with poles, petrol bombs and other projectiles – fought pitched battles with police in several parts of Hong Kong.

In all police made 269 arrests, more than on any day since protests began.

Those detained ranged in age from 12 to 71. More than 100 people were taken to hospital and 30 police were injured.

Tuesday’s unrest saw police fire 900 rubber bullets and 1,400 rounds of tear gas. That compares with 1,000 tear gas canisters fired in the first two months of protests.

In the days leading up to the anniversary, tensions were high in Hong Kong, which always sees protests on National Day.

This year, however, Hong Kong has seen four months of protests sparked by proposed changes to an extradition bill. Though the changes have been abandoned, the unrest has continued, expanding into demands for greater democracy.

Students at Tsuen Wan Public Ho Chuen Yiu Memorial College show solidarity with the shot protester
Students at Tsuen Wan Public Ho Chuen Yiu Memorial College show solidarity with the protester who was shot

The shooting of Tsang Chi-kin, who was attacking an officer with a pole, was captured on video and shared online.

“My chest is hurting, I need to go to hospital,” said the 18-year-old, who was arrested after being shot. The government said he was now in a stable condition.

Although people have been shot with rubber bullets in previous protests, this was the first injury from a live round.

Police chief Stephen Lo said firing the bullet was “lawful and reasonable” as the officer thought his and colleagues’ lives were under threat.

Asked why the bullet was fired at close range, Mr Lo said: “He [the officer] did not decide the distance between him and the assailant.”

Hundreds of people staged a peaceful sit-in outside the teenager’s school on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, 96 people, mostly students, who had been arrested on Sunday appeared in court charged with rioting.

Repairs to shops, businesses and public facilities – including the mass transit system – are under way following Tuesday’s violence. All metro stations are now open.

What made Tuesday different?

In Beijing, the anniversary of Communist Party rule saw a parade of Chinese military might: 15,000 troops, 580 vehicles and missiles, and 160 aircraft.

In Hong Kong, some 1,200 miles away, protesters marked the day very differently.

Peaceful marches soon exploded into violence. BBC reporter Tessa Wong, who was on the streets, said protesters fought “pitched battles” with officers.

Shortly before Tsang Chi-kin was shot, men wearing helmets and gas masks attacked an officer on the ground with a pole.

An officer responded by firing his gun at close range.

Elsewhere, protesters threw petrol bombs, started fires, and ran at officers. Police responded with water cannon, tear gas, and – in total – six live rounds.

The day saw the highest number of arrests since this year’s protests began, and the highest number of live rounds fired.

A woman at West Kowloon Law Courts on Wednesday, where 96 anti-government protesters were due to appear
A woman at West Kowloon Law Courts on Wednesday, before 96 anti-government protesters arrested on Sunday were due to appear

What explains the anger?

The protests were sparked earlier this year by a proposed law, which would have allowed extradition from Hong Kong to the Chinese mainland.

Opponents thought this would put Hong Kongers at risk of unfair trials, and, in July, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said the law “was dead”.

But despite the law being withdrawn, the protests have continued every weekend.

Clashes between police and protesters have created their own momentum, and there is wider discontent too.

Recent years have seen growing opposition to the perceived encroachment of Beijing on Hong Kong’s politics and threats to local identity.

Many young people have economic worries, and there are also demands for universal suffrage for elections to Hong Kong’s parliament.

As China showed off its superpower status in Beijing, violence in Hong Kong – a special administrative region of China – was inevitable.

What is the background?

Until 1997, Hong Kong was a British territory. Since then, it has been part of China but with its own system of law and government – known as One Country, Two Systems.

Hong Kong has its own judiciary and a separate legal system. Rights including freedom of assembly and freedom of speech are protected.

But those freedoms – the Basic Law – expire in 2047. It is not clear what Hong Kong’s status will be then.

Hong Kong – Fighting for Democracy

Hong Kong’s Fight for Democracy

The government’s retreat in the face of massive protests was an unexpected win for the territory’s citizens, but they are unlikely to prevail against Beijing in the long struggle to maintain their rights

Last week, two days after one of the most violent protests in Hong Kong since China resumed control of the territory in 1997, Thomas, a 20-year-old medical student who declined to give his last name, was still helping to clean up and replenish supplies at an emergency medical station outside the headquarters of the territory’s government.

He had spent the better part of a day ferrying wounded protesters from the streets to his first-aid tent nearby. In unprecedented scenes in this city once seen, somewhat patronizingly, as a pragmatic, orderly, business-oriented community with little time for politics, thousands of demonstrators—mostly young, many of them equipped with little more than gas masks and umbrellas—had taken to the streets. Thomas found himself treating internal injuries and blunt-object wounds inflicted by repeated baton rounds and tear-gas fusillades from the Hong Kong police.

But when I spoke to him, exhausted in the searing midsummer heat of tropical Hong Kong, he was ready for the next round of protests to defend the territory’s jealously guarded but fragile freedoms. “Protesting might not succeed, it’s true,” he told me. “But if we don’t protest, we will definitely not succeed.”

Hundreds of thousands of protesters march through the streets of Hong Kong to protest an extradition bill, June 16. PHOTO: KIN CHEUNG/ASSOCIATED PRESS

It is a sentiment that has echoed across centuries of democratic resistance. And although Hong Kong is home to just seven million people, the struggle that continues to play out on the city’s streets has global resonance. While many in the West ponder their own politics and lament the supposed erosion of their freedoms, the people of Hong Kong are engaged in a real struggle for their human rights against the world’s biggest authoritarian power.

The immediate target of the revolt is the Hong Kong government, led by the hapless chief executive, Carrie Lam. But everyone here knows the real fight is against the People’s Republic of China. Beijing is being challenged not by a great military rival but by hundreds of thousands of students, doctors, factory workers, lawyers and civil servants, armed only with a seasoned defiance and a determination to defend their cherished liberties.

That they are unlikely to succeed in the end is not just the predictable denouement of the 1997 agreement returning Hong Kong to China. The fact is that, as an economic asset and gateway, the city now matters less to Beijing than ever before. Its prosperity may well be a sacrifice that President Xi Jinping is willing to make as he asserts the authority of the Communist Party ever more aggressively at home and abroad.

For now, at least, Hong Kong’s rebels have the upper hand. Their resistance was rewarded when, three days after the violent clashes and less than a week after an estimated one million people—one seventh of the city’s population—took to the streets, Ms. Lam announced a climb-down.

She would, she said, “suspend” her attempts to pass legislation through Hong Kong’s legislative council that would have allowed China to extradite people in Hong Kong suspected of crimes. Later, Ms. Lam, who was appointed by the communist government in Beijing, issued an extraordinary televised apology. “I personally have to shoulder much of the responsibility. This has led to controversies, disputes and anxieties in society,” she said. “For this, I offer my most sincere apology to all people of Hong Kong.”

The government had insisted that the extradition arrangement was necessary to ensure that Hong Kong didn’t become a “haven for fugitives” and that the transfer of suspects to China would be permitted only after due judicial process. But people here, including thousands of lawyers, scoffed, warning that the measure would open the way for Beijing to have political opponents and critics of the communist government picked up and sent across the border, where they would be subject to China’s capricious legal arrangements.

“This law would be a huge blow to Hong Kong,” says Jeffrey Ngo, a leading member of the Demosisto group, which advocates for more freedom for the territory. “The rule of law is essential to Hong Kong’s character and its commercial viability.”

‘It’s too soon to call this a turning point—too soon to count our blessings.’—Emily Lau, former Hong Kong lawmaker

Few in Hong Kong are ready to declare victory in what some have termed “the last battle” for the territory’s freedoms—and its unusual status as a semi-independent enclave within the People’s Republic. To veterans of the fight for democracy in Hong Kong, Ms. Lam’s unexpected decision instead looked simply like a tactical retreat by China and its proxies, not a strategic victory in the long struggle for human rights.

“It’s too soon to call this a turning point—too soon to count our blessings,” said Emily Lau, a former lawmaker who has been a persistent critic of China and its nominees for years.

The next day, hundreds of thousands of protesters again took to the streets, this time demanding the full withdrawal of the bill and Ms. Lam’s resignation. More protests took place at the end of the week to keep the pressure on the government and to send a continuing signal to Beijing and the world.

When Britain agreed to hand Hong Kong over to China in 1997, Beijing committed to maintaining much of the territory’s legal system and open culture. In recognition of Hong Kong’s striking economic success over 150 years of British rule and its status as one of the world’s major financial centers, the Communist Party leadership agreed to a most unusual arrangement. China’s leader, Deng Xiaoping, enshrined the principle of “One Country, Two Systems”: Hong Kong would be legally part of China, but it would be a “special administrative region,” largely free to make its own laws (outside of defense and foreign policy) and maintain its liberal system of governance, which includes freedom of speech, freedom of the press and, crucially, the rule of law and an independent judiciary.

There were plenty of skeptics at the outset. Sure enough, over the first 20 years of China’s control, the character of the city has steadily changed. Chief executives of the territory have become steadily more complaisant to China’s wishes, say critics.

A report in April by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the British House of Commons noted the erosion of liberties. “We fear that Hong Kong is in reality moving towards ‘One Country, One and a Half Systems,’ ” the members of Parliament said after a review of the territory’s political system. “We also believe that the Chinese government’s approach to Hong Kong is moving closer to ‘One Country, One System’ than it is to maintaining its treaty commitments under the Joint Declaration.”

The report went on to note in detail breaches of the right to freedom of expression, freedom of the press and media, freedom of assembly and association and academic freedom. It also noted the prevention of democratically elected representatives from taking their seats, extrajudicial abductions, violations of the rule of law, interference in business activities and clampdowns on political speech and human-rights defenders.

Some critics go further. “It is more like One Country, 1.1 Systems,” says Claudia Mo, convener of the pro-democracy bloc in Hong Kong’s legislature. Or, as Thomas, the medical student, puts it, “China’s invisible hand is becoming steadily more visible.”

In 2016, for instance, several anti-Beijing lawmakers refused to take the prescribed oath of loyalty to the People’s Republic, vowing instead to serve the people of Hong Kong, or deliberately flubbed the oath. Though duly elected, they were removed from office.

China has been blamed for spiriting people out of Hong Kong and onto the mainland for detention and torture. The local press, lively and garrulous in the past, has taken on a somewhat muted quality when reporting on subjects of high sensitivity to Beijing. Last year, a journalist for the Financial Times was denied a visa renewal and banned from re-entering Hong Kong for the crime of hosting an event with a local leader who has called for independence for the territory.

A protester holds an umbrella during a performance on a main road in the occupied areas outside government headquarters in Hong Kong, Oct. 9, 2014. The color yellow was closely associated with the massive pro-democracy protests known as the Umbrella Movement. PHOTO: KIN CHEUNG/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Five years ago, tens of thousands took to Hong Kong’s streets in colorful demonstrations to demand an end to China’s steady encroachment on their liberties. These were known as the Umbrella Movement protests, after the implements the marchers carried to ward off both the seasonal rains and the pepper spray used by the police. But that protest fizzled in what seemed like a possible indication of the ultimate acquiescence of Hong Kongers in their political reality.

So when the protests burst onto the streets this month, some were surprised at their ferocity. Mr. Ngo, of the Demosisto movement, says that much more was at stake this time. “In 2014, people were fighting for greater democracy—trying to get China to fulfill its promises,” he said. “In 2019, they are trying to preserve their existing freedoms.”

‘If Hong Kong becomes just like any other Chinese city, it’s not going to work for international business people.’—Claudia Mo, Hong Kong lawmaker

This was not the only time since Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997 that street protests have forced the territory’s government to back down. In 2003, the government’s chief executive tried to introduce legislation that would have expanded the definition of treason under Hong Kong’s constitution in ways that would have dramatically reduced freedom to criticize the Chinese government. Concerns among commercial interests—especially the institutions that have made Hong Kong a major financial center—helped to defeat the measure. Their objections may have been crucial this time as well.

“The risk of extradition [to China] could affect business people too. They’re not apathetic,” says Ms. Mo, the pro-democracy legislator. “And if Hong Kong becomes just like any other Chinese city, it’s not going to work for international business people.”

While the protesters are determined to fight this battle alone if necessary, they also retain a sliver of hope that the world beyond China might help them preserve their way of life in inhospitable circumstances.

On the streets near the government’s offices, Alexandra Wong was bedecked in the British union flag—on her T-shirt, on her umbrella, in her hand. In an irony that may not be lost on Beijing, which recovered Hong Kong as part of its pledge to reverse the “century of humiliation” under imperial intervention, she has fond recollections of Hong Kong’s outside rulers. “As a British colony, we were very happy because we could see the future and we could do what we want,” she says. She isn’t hopeful, given the distractions roilingthe U.K. today, but she would like Britain again to stand firm with its former subjects.

One hears more optimism about the U.S. under President Donald Trump, given his administration’s aggressive posture toward China. “There’s an opportunity here—the U.S. could make the preservation of Hong Kong’s freedoms part of its trade discussions with China,” says Ms. Mo. “U.S. investment here is not exactly tiny, and I hope Washington can find a way to take Hong Kong into account,” she adds.

For now, the territory remains tense as people await the next move from the government and its shadow bosses in Beijing. Any immediate optimism is tempered by the realization that two powerful changes since Hong Kong’s handover to China make it much less likely that the Communist Party’s leaders will tolerate much latitude for this troublesome outpost in their own land.

The first shift is that Hong Kong’s economic significance has dramatically diminished. In 1997, Hong Kong’s output was, remarkably, 20% of China’s GDP. Today, after two decades of rapid Chinese growth, it makes up less than 3%. Chinese financial institutions and other businesses have also become a major presence in the territory, making Hong Kong more dependent on the mainland. Still, if forced to choose, Beijing has always made clear that it would opt for China’s territorial integrity over Hong Kong’s prosperity. If that was true 20 years ago, it is even more so now.

The other big change is the rise of more authoritarian rule in China. Some democrats, in Hong Kong and elsewhere, once thought that the city’s success as a thriving political territory under the rule of law, with freedoms taken for granted in the West, might be a kind of democratic wedge, an inspiration to the rest of China.

But since 2012, when Mr. Xi came to power, the Western conceit that China would become steadily freer has been demolished as China’s new leader has reversed much of the political liberalization of his predecessors. “Thinking [that] Hong Kong could help make China freer was part of the misconception that China was in any case headed in that direction,” says Mr. Ngo.

So despite the tumultuous events of the past week and the success (for now) of the rebels, the odds for Hong Kong don’t look good. It is hard to be hopeful about the territory’s future. Yet it is equally impossible not to be inspired by the events of the past few weeks.

All along Harcourt Road, where many of the pitched battles between police and demonstrators took place last week, posters were pasted to lamp posts, depicting the famous “Tank Man,” a lone man confronting a column of tanks near Tiananmen Square in 1989. They bore the words: “We are Hong Kongers with a conscience. We are not thugs without a conscience.”

“The Chinese government knows that Hong Kong is not Tiananmen Square—what they did 30 years ago, they would not dare to do it here,” says Ms. Lau, the former lawmaker. It is a characteristically defiant statement from a characteristically defiant people, the last flickering flame of resistance to a rising oppressor. For now, at least, it is also true.

By Gerard Baker