Since the early hours and under the break of dawn, light rain had descended upon the yellow-helmeted crowd of colorful umbrellas that assembled in front of the Chief Executive’s Office. The protestors, mostly young students, had blocked roads, bridges and fly-overs. Their voice was their only weapon. The black helmets, outnumbered as they were, retreated into Tim Wa Avenue, a narrow bottleneck facing Harcourt Road, where protesters had now gained enough confidence to lower their umbrellas –their only protection against water cannons and rubber bullets. They had then advanced with confidence against the enforcement agents, rushing passionately along the People’s Liberation Army Building an ominous sign. They had won, or so they thought. The black helmets fired their first shot without prior notice. A huge curtain of tear gas smoke covered the young students in the front line, for they had fallen victim to a classic trap. But this was no Thermopylae. This was not Tian’anmen. This was Hong Kong, June 12, 2019.
A city in shock
Once a bastion of freedom in East Asia, the so-called “world’s freest economy for 25 consecutive years,” Hong Kong’s liberty is fading away at the indifference of the world’s nations. A new amendment soon to be introduced into the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance that will allow extradition of criminals to mainland China. Following failed attempts to persuade the government to withdraw the new bill, demonstrators took to the streets surrounding the Chief Executive Office in Admiralty. After hours of peaceful occupation, an increasingly angered police pretended to retreat into Tim Wa Avenue, trapping front-line protesters into a bottleneck where they were received with a thick curtain of tear gas over their heads.
This was the first of a series of shots that combined tear gas and rubber bullets, whereas supply stations with water and first-aid kits were sabotaged, officers seized boxes of water from helpers, and ambulances were blocked by the police from reaching wounded protesters. Fences were sprayed with pepper to cause indirect harm, and tear gas mixed with pepper was released secretly, probably behind the PLA’s Building to affect protesters returning after the gas from the first shots had been dispersed. Footage from protesters and police shows a dreadful picture: journalists were mocked and attacked by the police, a foreign elderly citizen who was sitting down nearby was repeatedly sprayed with pepper, stand-by youngsters were attacked from behind by multiple officers, insulted and ridiculed, and even Chinese hackers attacked the network used by protesters to communicate. This was not just out-of-control police at the service of a despotic government. This was an extremely wicked and deliberate attempt to injure people, as comments from the police recorded on site and filtered to the media showed. One would say this was Tian’anmen, 1989, but it was Hong Kong, 2019. Thirty years after, China has proved to be once more the same bloody dictatorship reluctant to embrace any form of liberty.
A Tale of One Country and Two Systems
Last Sunday more than one million citizens, near one-seventh of Hong Kong’s total population, took to the streets to protest against a planned bill to allow extradition to mainland China, from which Hong Kong still holds judicial and economic autonomy due to its special situation under the “One Country, Two Systems” principle. This amendment could, if passed, not only damage international confidence in Hong Kong’s business environment, but it may also subject foreign citizens living, visiting or transiting through Hong Kong to China’s capricious judicial system, as the American government’s own Morgan Ortagus noted. This may become a bigger problem due to China’s growing use of the so-called “exit bans,” which can be used to block individuals from leaving China under minor offences. Thus, Chinese dissidents and foreign political enemies alike can be easily extradited to China, blocked from leaving the country, and then arrested once their VISAs expire.
While Hong Kong protesters in the past may have had some success, those years are past gone. A massive demonstration on June 1, 2003 stopped a rather similar proposed bill, the Article 23, which enacted legislation to prohibit any act of subversion in Hong Kong against the central government of mainland China. At the time, the seat in Beijing was occupied by Hu Jiantao and established under the two-term limit principle instituted by Deng Xiaoping. Former President Hu was willing to allow and respect decisions by local governments, and thus it was not rare even for Chinese provinces to enact or reject their own judicial procedures. This all changed when Xi Jinping took office in 2013, and it is not by chance that Hong Kong’s protests next year for democratic elections had failed.
Xi Jinping not only centralized power and re-institutionalized a cult of personality around him, as Mao Zedong had done in the past. He also conducted a Cultural Revolution-like campaign to control the academia both in China and abroad –mainly through the Confucius Institutes–, removed the term limits introduced by Deng Xiaoping, and increased censorship in all media platforms to such a degree China had never seen before. Hongkongers probably became self-conscious of how deep the Chinese rabbit hole really goes when, between October and December 2015, five booksellers, one of them a Swedish national, were kidnapped outside of China by the Chinese police. More recently, Canadian nationals living in China have also been falsely accused as retaliation for the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou.
But the utmost example of hubris from the Chinese Communist Party came in 2017, when a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared the Sino-British Joint Declaration an “historical document” that “no longer has any practical significance” and it is “not at all binding” for the management of Hong Kong. The claim was that the 1997’s agreement to return Hong Kong to China under the condition of preserving its autonomy for 50 years was unbinding as soon as the same “returning” happened in 1997, a lesson foreign businessman working in and with China maybe should keep in mind.
The proposed amendment to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance to allow extradition of pretended criminals to mainland China has to be seen and understood in the light of all these recent changes in Chinese politics. Mr. Xi’s “Chinese Dream” is becoming the first modern leader to unify China after Mao Zedong’s failed attempt, which had left Hong Kong and Taiwan outside of his authoritarian grip. But this dream is meant to fail, as there are his plans of global economic domination through the failed “One Belt, One Road” initiative, his likewise failed attempt of technological supremacy though state-owned enterprises such as Huawei, and his Soviet Union-like effort to win an imaginary lunar Space Race. China’s days are numbered, and its economic system is doomed to fail in the next years and decades, just like any other authoritarian and Communist regime has failed in the past. Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” is the dream of a tyrant, as it is Carrie Lam’s, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. And we all know what awaits the tyrant. It is not a matter of when, but of how many more will have to suffer until then.
This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organisation as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions. If you’re a student interested in presenting your perspective on this blog, click here to submit a guest post!