Democracy’s Demise in Hong Kong

China has eroded and nearly destroyed democracy in Hong Kong since taking control of the city from Britain in 1997.

Beijing has cunningly manipulated a well-developed political and constitutional framework to undo, step by step, Hong Kong’s autonomy. Concepts such as civil liberties and the separation of powers, which people held dear under the relatively enlightened rule of the British, are being abandoned. Fairness and justice, the heart of democracy, are withering.

The only way out for Hong Kong is to split from Beijing and form a new democratic state.

But with an encroaching security apparatus, China has tightened its grip across every aspect of life in Hong Kong, which has resulted this year in electoral setbacks for the democratic opposition. Dozens of pro-democracy activists have been convicted of minor offenses, and some have received lengthy jail terms.

I was imprisoned for four weeks in June after being charged with “unlawful assembly” in the Legislative Council — Hong Kong’s parliament — when I was still a member of that body. In 2016, China’s intervention in a court decision resulted in pro-independence lawmakers, including myself, being removed from office for taking our oaths improperly. The “unlawful assembly” occurred as we attempted to push our way into a conference room to retake our oaths.

The authorities have moved, in the name of national security, to ban the separatist Hong Kong National Party — a remarkable tactic aimed at crushing the pro-independence group. This illustrates that the government in Hong Kong has no tolerance for those who oppose the Chinese Communist Party. Opposition figures are also treated as terrorists simply for assembling and protesting.

To remain open to the world, Hong Kong cannot accept this. China acts no different than an imperialist state, using its power to control telecommunications, infrastructure and commercial markets. If Hong Kong acquiesces to this control, the city will be alienated from the civilized democratic world.

A display of the national flags of Hong Kong and China in Hong Kong last year as part of preparations to mark the 20th anniversary of the city’s handover from Britain to China.
(CREDIT: Anthony Wallace/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

Already too many Hong Kong residents are fearful when discussing democracy, freedom and human rights; they need to be persuaded that a split from Beijing would best ensure the city’s survival. But the pro-Beijing camp in Hong Kong is sophisticated and relentless, and the intensifying crackdown makes the work of pro-democracy activists increasingly impossible.

When Hong Kong was handed over, Beijing allowed people in the city to expand their economic influence across Asia, providing job opportunities through infrastructure and construction projects. But over all, Hong Kong actually gained little, as Beijing drew lessons from the city’s colonial history to boost other cities on the mainland, such as Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. They prospered, while Hong Kong’s residents felt straitened economically and marginalized politically.

This was Beijing’s intention in the 1980s when Britain and China negotiated the return of Hong Kong with little input from city residents. The Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 simply informed Hong Kong that its future would be in Beijing’s hands. Residents could move, or they could stay and accept the rule of a government that five years later would carry out the Tiananmen Square massacre, an event Hong Kong has not forgotten.

Since then, Beijing has steadily endeavored to change not only the law and political system in Hong Kong, but also the values of residents, stirring up many conflicts as a result.

Democracy, as defined by Beijing, came to mean giving up life in Hong Kong as it was previously known. If people wanted normalcy and financial stability, they had little choice but to support Beijing’s rule.

To undermine those activists who still deeply believed in democracy, freedom and human rights, Beijing and the Hong Kong government instigated slanderous rumors about them. Any activist who supported those values was branded a “separatist” or a “betrayer of the Chinese nation.”

This strategy helped undermine support for the “umbrella revolution” in 2014, in which activists called for a greater say in how Hong Kong’s leader was chosen. Those protests may have fizzled, but they led to more calls for independence among young activists and helped foster the formation in 2016 of the Hong Kong National Party, which the government now wants to suppress.

Many residents are also realizing that Beijing lied about eventually granting Hong Kong a genuine democracy with open elections.

According to the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s foundational legal text since 1997, the city’s chief executive is appointed by a committee of 1,200 members. When Beijing took control, it promised that by 2017 the city would be able to elect its top leader by universal suffrage. Residents pushed hard for this in 2014. They had hope, but it was betrayed.

Beijing has not changed electoral guidelines as promised, and the committee that selects the chief executive comprises mostly pro-Beijing members.

Pro-independence candidates have not even been allowed to run since 2016.

Further, the government has unilaterally instituted new laws, and when lawmakers in parliament do debate some bills, they risk criminal charges because of the government’s influence over the judiciary.

The system of checks and balances is being dismantled. The pillars of civil liberties and freedom of association are under assault. Only by splitting from China can Hong Kong have true democracy and freedom.

Yau Wai-ching is a pro-independence activist and a former member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.