Rights under threat: how China is bringing Hong Kong to heel

08-Jul-2019 Intellasia | Reuters | 6:22 AM Print This Post

In the 22 years since Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule its citizens have enjoyed many freedoms and rights unheard of in mainland China. The territory was promised “a high degree of autonomy” under the Basic Law – Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.

But over the years China has tightened its control over the city, chipping away at freedom of speech, judicial independence and political rights.

The recent eruption of protests in Hong Kong – prompted by a proposed law allowing for individuals to be extradited to mainland China – reflects a growing anger at this erosion of basic freedoms.

Political rights

The latest protest over a proposed extradition law follows anger at the erosion of Hong Kong’s judicial independence. (Reuters).

The latest protest over a proposed extradition law follows anger at the erosion of Hong Kong’s judicial independence. (Reuters).

In June 2014, Beijing released a policy white paper declaring that the Chinese government had “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong and the city’s “high degree of autonomy … comes solely from the authorisation by the central leadership”.

Political tensions spiked when China refused to grant Hong Kong genuine universal suffrage in 2014. It was ruled that the city’s top political post – that of chief executive – would be chosen by a “nominating committee” of 1,200 people, most of them from pro-Beijing elites. The chief executive-elect also needed to be appointed by the Chinese government.

The decision sparked the 79-day Umbrella movement, which sought – but failed – to press Beijing to grant people an unfettered vote. The Chinese authorities said pro-democracy advocates were used by western forces as “tools of subversion”.

Discontent continued to build. By ejecting six pro-democracy lawmakers and barring candidates seen as pro-independent from running for elections, the Hong Kong government successfully weakened the pro-democracy camp’s power to block unpopular policies in the legislature. At the same time, it pushed expensive integration projects – including a bridge linking Hong Kong, Macau and southern China and a high-speed rail link to China – which antagonised many people.

Rule of law

Over the past few weeks, millions protested against the proposed extradition law that allows for individuals to stand trial in China’s opaque courts. The protests forced the government to suspend the bill and its leader, Carrie Lam, apologised for the crisis, but the protesters were dissatisfied that she refused to fully withdraw the bill.

On the anniversary of Hong Kong’s 1997 return to Chinese rule on 1 July, after a mass peaceful demonstration, hundreds of young protesters stormed and vandalised the legislature building. Police fired teargas after midnight to disperse them.

The proposed extradition law follows a white paper published by Beijing in 2014, which says “loving the country is a basic political requirement” for judges and they must also “safeguard the country’s sovereignty and security”.

Meanwhile, the law and judicial process are being used by the government to suppress dissidents, warn critics, who point to the prosecution of leaders of the Umbrella movement for archaic common-law offences such as “conspiracy to commit public nuisance” and “inciting others to public nuisance”.

Press freedom

Hong Kong’s media has long self-censored, but the trend has deteriorated sharply in recent years as China uses media ownership to influence coverage. Eight out of Hong Kong’s 26 mainstream media outlets are either under mainland Chinese ownership or have significant mainland stakes, a recent report found. The rest are owned by Hong Kong conglomerates with significant business interests in China.

Following the 2014 Umbrella movement, journalists have reported increased internal editorial interference and suppression of critical voices. Mainland-owned Hong Kong media seek to present themselves as credible news outlets but are beholden to the Chinese government, which regularly feeds them with exclusive stories or information they rarely decline to publish. Direct criticism of top Chinese leaders is off-limits.

Journalists from pro-Beijing media have also been invited by the Chinese authorities to cover staged confessional interviews with dissidents including Gui Minhai, one of the booksellers who ended up in mainland police custody after publishing politically sensitive books.

In 2019, Reporters without Borders ranked Hong Kong 73rd out of 180 regions and countries – a drop from 15 years earlier, when it consistently ranked in the global top 20.

Publishing

The once flourishing publishing business in Hong Kong has also vastly declined, as Chinese-backed chains dominate the trade and independent bookshops struggle to survive.

An investigation by the public broadcaster RTHK last year showed that China’s representative office in Hong Kong has indirect full ownership of a local publishing conglomerate that runs more than half of the bookshops in the city and owns more than 30 publishers in Hong Kong.

The book trade was badly shaken in 2015 when five publishers and booksellers from the Causeway Bay Books shop disappeared in mysterious circumstances. They surfaced in confessions on Chinese state TV, in which they admitted to crimes from a hit-and-run traffic incident to sending Chinese clients banned books. One jumped bail and bravely spoke out about his ordeal, which included mental torture, prolonged isolation and threats.

In the aftermath, readers, publishers and even printers shied away from politically sensitive books.

Bao Pu, who runs New Century Press, has published many political titles including a memoir by the ousted liberal Chinese leader Zhao Ziyang. He said publishing had become “a dangerous business” after the Causeway Bookshop incident and the trade had “dried up in the past couple of years”.

Even the printers now refuse to print politically sensitive contents, he said. The books he published this year, including The Last Secret: The Final Documents from the June Fourth Crackdown and Deng Xiaoping in 1989, were printed outside Hong Kong, which hugely increased the cost.

Ideological education and academic freedom

Although a Hong Kong government plan in 2012 to introduce “national education” classes in the school curriculum was shelved after a mass protest, patriotic elements have long been seeping into the education system. Most schools have a regular flag-raising ceremony. Textbooks extol the greatness of the Chinese nation and praise historical authoritarian rulers while avoiding sensitive incidents such as the crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen movement. The use of Mandarin instead of Cantonese (the native tongue of 90% of Hong Kong residents) in Chinese language classes in many schools has also fuelled resentment.

In universities, academic freedom suffers as the government fills their councils with pro-government figures to preside over the work of the institutions. Joseph Cheng, a retired political scientist at City University of Hong Kong, said academics now need to be “politically correct” if they wish to enter the management, seek promotion or gain tenure. Those whom China sees favourably can access lucrative funding in China.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/05/rights-under-threat-how-china-is-bringing-hong-kong-to-heel

 


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