Coronavirus is giving Beijing cover to extinguish HK’s democracy, advocates say

05-May-2020 Intellasia | | 7:50 AM Print This Post

Under its masthead, American newspaper the Washington Post has carried the phrase “democracy dies in darkness” since 2017.

While it has been interpreted by some as a warning about the Trump administration’s attacks on the media, some say the phrase is one that could equally apply to the fate of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement right now.

While most of 2019 saw the semi-autonomous city erupt in unprecedented and violent demonstrations against its Beijing-appointed government, in 2020 the streets of Hong Kong now appear eerily quiet by comparison.

Hong Kong's anti-Government protests ramped up in June 2019.(ABC News: Sean Mantesso)

Hong Kong’s anti-Government protests ramped up in June 2019.(ABC News: Sean Mantesso)

This is all thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

By late January an outbreak of a then-mysterious virus went from a trickle to a tide, prompting the lockdown of vast parts of China from January 20 to halt what later became known as COVID-19.

Hong Kong about four-and-half hours from China’s coronavirus epicentre of Wuhan by high-speed train recorded its first cases on January 22, and declared a state of emergency a few days later on January 25.

Since late March, nobody in the former British colony has been allowed to gather in groups larger than four, while non-essential businesses including clubs, bars, karaoke parlours, gyms, and cinemas have been closed to halt the virus’s spread.

Those who have been found to participate, organise, or even supply a venue for a prohibited gathering face a fine of up to $HK25,000 ($26,015), or up to six months in jail.

This partial lockdown is scheduled to remain until May 7.

Like much of the world, usual daily life for people in Hong Kong remains suspended a situation the city’s pro-democracy activists say Beijing and their semi-autonomous government are exploiting.

Novel viruses lead to novel forms of dissent

Since June last year, almost 8,000 people have been arrested for protest-related activity, according to Human Rights Watch.

To put this number in context, it is almost equal to Hong Kong’s total 2019 prison population, which stood at 7,935.

Part of the reason why the protests grabbed world headlines was because they struck at the things that made Hong Kong a global metropolis: luxury shopping centres, famed night districts, universities, as well as main roads, subway stations, and even Hong Kong’s international airport terminals.

But in 2020, the frequency, scale, and intensity of Hong Kong’s protests at least in the physical, public sphere have reduced significantly due to fears about coronavirus transmission.

This has led to new forms of protest, with pro-democracy protests appearing on the role-playing Nintendo Switch game Animal Crossing, where characters have unfurled banners that read “Free Hong Kong” alongside images of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

The game has since been removed from Chinese mainland online stores.

The pandemic hasn’t stopped physical protests completely a 300-strong demonstration at Cityplaza shopping centre on Hong Kong Island was broken up last Sunday but in recent weeks the government has gone for the movement’s figureheads.

On April 18, 15 prominent pro-democracy advocates were arrested, accused of organising and participating in “unlawful assemblies” in August and October 2019.

Among the detainees were the self-made millionaire and publisher Jimmy Lai, 71, former Democratic Party chair Martin Lee, 81, and former politician and columnist Margaret Ng, 72, alongside other politicians, barristers, and businesspeople.

Joshua Wong, secretary-general of the pro-democracy organisation Demosisto, told the ABC the timing of the arrests was tactical.

“If they arrested those political leaders, including Martin Lee, in November, 100,000 people would’ve taken to the street immediately that night in different districts,” Wong said.

“But due to safety concerns over the coronavirus which make it difficult to gather people on the street, [the government] has taken advantage.”

The arrests came as China charged its first foreign national, Belise’s Lee Henley Hu Xiang, for allegedly interfering in Hong Kong with foreign help, while another Hong Kong man convicted of desecrating the Chinese national flag had his sentence changed from community service to 20 days jail on appeal last week.

Questions of Hong Kong’s judicial independence have also surfaced in recent weeks, following a Reuters report on Beijing’s alleged threats to the territory’s common law system.

However, Hong Kong Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma has denied that he personally had ever felt pressure from the Central government in response to the Reuters claims.

Beijing moves to directly intervene in Hong Kong’s affairs

While initial protests in 2019 galvanised around a controversial now-withdrawn extradition bill, the movement quickly broadened by mid last year to advocate for Hong Kong’s universal suffrage and greater protections of the city’s guaranteed freedoms.

These freedoms are laid out in two documents: the Sino-British Joint Declaration (the document that formally outlined the terms of Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to China) and Hong Kong’s mini-constitution known as the Basic Law.

Both stipulate China’s rule over Hong Kong comes with significant caveats, including the continuation of British capitalism, common law, civil liberties, as well as the understanding that Beijing would not be able to directly intervene in the city for a period of 50 years from 1997.

But in recent weeks, many say the actions of Beijing’s representatives in Hong Kong have again demonstrated how tenuous China’s guarantees may be.

A fortnight ago, China’s office in Hong Kong, known as the Liaison Office, said it could directly intervene in Hong Kong’s affairs, contradicting the city’s understanding of its autonomy.

“The offices that represent the mainland government in Hong Kong have essentially said, ‘you know what, we’re actually going to insert ourselves in Hong Kong’,” Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch’s China director, told the ABC.

“The Joint Declaration and Basic Law essentially says that Hong Kong gets to manage all of its affairs except for foreign affairs and defence.”

The Liaison Office’s understanding came down to the interpretation of a section of the Basic Law.

Article 22 of the law states that a Chinese government department can’t directly interfere in Hong Kong, but Beijing argues the Liaison Office isn’t a department, and thus can interfere.

When asked about Article 22, a spokesperson for the Hong Kong government said the Liaison Office was “authorised by the [Central People's government] to have special responsibility to handle issues relating to Hong Kong”.

“The Liaison Office and its personnel shall abide by the Basic Law and laws of [Hong Kong]. There is no question of the Liaison Office interfering in the affairs which [Hong Kong] administers on its own in accordance with the Basic Law,” the spokesperson said.

In recent weeks, the Office has directly criticised pro-democracy members of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, while its director, Luo Huining, called on the Hong Kong government via an online video to carry out a controversial national security law to fight the “foreign forces” he said were responsible for the city’s unrest.

“What needs to be activated should be activated. Hong Kong must not become a national security breach,” Luo said.

In recent weeks, the Office has directly criticised pro-democracy members of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, while its director, Luo Huining, called on the Hong Kong government via an online video to carry out a controversial national security law to fight the “foreign forces” he said were responsible for the city’s unrest.

“What needs to be activated should be activated. Hong Kong must not become a national security breach,” Luo said.

Following the Office’s statement, the Hong Kong government said via a press statement that the Liaison Office had to abide by Article 22, but later replaced it within hours toeing Beijing’s line.

Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy Legislative Council member, told the ABC this turnaround was an example of the government turning Hong Kong into “some Orwellian society”.

“What we said previously was negated by Beijing… it’s so obvious and invasive to the understanding we’ve had for 20 years,” Ms Mo said.

She said it was “more than saddening”, accusing the Lam administration of “Hong Kong-speak” a reference to George Orwell’s idea of political “doublespeak”, where politicians use language to obfuscate.

In response to Ms Mo’s comments, a spokesperson for the Hong Kong government said it exercised “‘Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong’ and a high degree of autonomy in strict accordance with the Basic Law”.

“Under the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, Hong Kong’s capitalist system, free economy and trusted legal system remain as robust as ever, the free flow of capital within, into and out of Hong Kong is guaranteed and Hong Kong residents continue to enjoy a wide array of freedoms, including freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly and of demonstration,” the spokesperson said.

The Liaison Office was approached for comment, but declined an interview and directed the ABC to the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau. The Association did not respond to the ABC’s interview requests.

Crackdown ahead of pivotal September elections

Ms Mo told the ABC that Hong Kong’s recent political developments suggested Beijing was using its muscle because of anxieties over impending legislative elections on September 4 this year.

“They’re very worried about [pro-democracy groups] claiming legislative majority,” Ms Mo said.

“They will do just anything to shut down the Hong Kong opposition they just can’t afford to have the Democrats [claim] the legislature’s majority.”

This was a sentiment shared by Demosisto’s Wong, who said a democratic landslide in the elections would be a “nightmare for Beijing”.

“Now the freedom of Hong Kong is being strongly eroded, and this is the critical time we hope the international community will stay with [us],” Wong said.

When asked if the coronavirus pandemic was being used to speed up an alleged crackdown on pro-democracy advocates, a Hong Kong government spokesperson told the ABC that “no one is above it [the law] nor can anyone break it without facing consequences”.

“No one has any special privileges. The Police will handle the case[s] in a fair, just and impartial manner in accordance with the law,” the spokesperson said.

But as Hong Kong gears up for its poll, the Australian Parliament is assessing the use of targeted sanctions to address human rights breaches, which would result in legislation similar to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act dubbed the Magnitsky Act adopted in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Estonia.

The legislation allows countries to sanction perpetrators outside of their borders, which could involve visa denials, or the freezing of a perpetrators’ assets within their jurisdiction (such as property or stocks).

Monash University student Max Mok was one of four Australian citizens who recently advocated for similar Australian legislation to a human rights subcommittee of the Australian Parliament.

Mok said the Act would not only support a group of protesters in a faraway city in Asia, but also protect Australia from the erosion of democracy through China’s expansion.

“If Hong Kong does fall to China, [Australia] and the free world will lose the safeguard that has been keeping China at everybody’s doorstep,” Mok told the ABC.

Late last year, the US Congress went one step further for Hong Kong in a rare show of bipartisan agreement in passing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.

That Act makes US trade with Hong Kong contingent on an annual US State Department assessment of Hong Kong’s political autonomy, and in the event that it’s breached, the US would sanction and place visa restrictions on those who have interfered.

It’s legislation that pro-democracy advocates like Demosisto’s Joshua Wong want to see more of to safeguard Hong Kong.

“I hope [legislation] like the Human Rights and Democracy Act doesn’t only pass in the US, but in different countries around the Western world,” Wong said.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-05-04/coronavirus-hong-kong-pro-democracy-crackdown-china/12182268

 

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