A million people out on the streets protesting against the government is a rare political phenomenon, especially so in an area controlled by China’s repressive Communist regime.
Not surprisingly, when so many citizens of Hong Kong first came out on to the streets earlier this month to protest against a key legislation that was about to be passed, the world sat up in alarm.
This is the second time in history that China has witnessed mass anti-government protests of this magnitude. The previous one was the infamous Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, attended by an estimated 1.5 million Chinese citizens.
The proximate cause of the present uprising, which continues in one form or the other till the date of writing, is a contentious bill that seeks to allow the extradition of Hong Kong citizens to mainland China for judicial trials. Once passed, the bill would allow the Communist authorities to whisk away political opponents from Hong Kong and lock them up indefinitely.
At heart is the fear of a breakdown of the “One Country, Two Systems” policy that has allowed Hong Kong to exist as a semi-autonomous region within the People’s Republic of China. The understanding at the time of Hong Kong’s merger with China in 1997 was that the former British colony would be allowed to exist with its own democratic and liberal traditions and systems.
Hong Kong’s open judicial system based on British common law is widely considered to be independent, unlike the Communist Party-controlled courts in mainland China.
In mainland China, political opponents can be thrown into prison at the flimsiest of pretexts. Chinese and foreign businessmen too are not safe from the vindictive state as was evident in the case of the two Canadian businessmen — Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — who were jailed on espionage charges which the Canadian government dismissed as trumped up. The Canadian businessmen were actually arrested by Beijing in retaliation over the arrest in Canada of a key executive of the telecom giant Huawei.
The extradition bill threatens Hong Kong’s independence in more ways than one, leaving its citizens fearful of a future of diminishing political and personal freedoms. The looming shadow of a despotic Communist state forced Hong Kong’s young onto the streets with the city’s elders nodding in approval.
June proved to be a season of protests in Hong Kong. It started with a silent march called by lawyers on June 6. Three days before the extradition bill was to be tabled in the Hong Kong legislature, crowds chanting “Scrap the evil law” and demanding the resignation of chief executive Carrie Lam began filling the streets. As the marchers proceeded towards the city’s legislative council, thousands more joined in till an estimated million people or more had jammed the streets. This was by far the largest turnout of protesters Hong Kong had ever seen.
The same night, clashes broke out between protesters and the police and on June 12, the day of the signing of the bill, thousands more joined the protests as trade unions called for a general strike and many business establishments, including banks, downed shutters. The police cleared the crowds using rubber bullets, batons and teargas, provoking accusations of police brutality.
Several more rounds of protests rocked the city since with the one on June 16 reported to have been even bigger than that of June 9. Chief executive Carrie Lam, however, has so far refused to scrap the controversial bill, release the arrested, condemn police brutality or resign her position as demanded by the protesters.
Hong Kong citizens believe that their chief executive’s obduracy reflects the views of her mentors in Beijing. The chief executive in Hong Kong is not elected by popular franchise but by a 1,194-member committee dominated by pro-Beijing members.
She is considered arrogant and clearly in line with her Communist bosses in Beijing who are determined to crack down on political dissent anywhere in their realm. And this is precisely what the Hong Kong citizen fears most — the descent into tyranny.
The current protests and the issue of political liberties are entwined with the curious fortunes of a local bookseller, whose travails have come to symbolise the threat from Beijing.
Causeway Bay Books and its owner Lam Wing-kee have become integral symbols of the anti-extradition bill movement. The 63-year old Wing-kee runs one of the city state’s 10 independent bookshops and is known for stocking political books of various ideologies. This is anathema to Beijing’s Communist commissars, who abducted him and threw him into a mainland prison in 2015.
He was kept in solitary confinement, interrogated frequently, denied a lawyer and kept incommunicado for months. His ostensible offence was sending banned books to mainland China. He was released after eight months on the condition that he would give the Communist authorities the hard drive containing the list of his bookshop customers and not divulge how he was picked up and arrested.
Wing-kee, on returning to Hong Kong, did not keep his part of the bargain and in a press conference that shocked Hong Kong in 2016, related how he as well as five other staffers from his bookshop were illegally whisked off to mainland China by the notorious Central Investigation Team controlled by Beijing’s top leadership. Not surprisingly, he was the first one to flee Hong Kong the moment the extradition bill was about to be tabled.
Wing-kee’s abduction was clearly aimed at ensuring that other booksellers did not transgress the political limits set by Beijing. Several booksellers withdrew anti-Communist party literature while the Chinese foreign ministry made it clear that they had every right to arrest Lam Wing-kee since he was ultimately a Chinese citizen and had violated Chinese laws.
In other words, Beijing reserved the right to crush political dissent and when the extradition bill was proposed, it was clear that Carrie Lam was delivering the future of her fellow citizens to Beijing on a platter.
A system that orders tanks on innocent protesters, locks up more than a million Muslim Uighurs in concentration camps, and vows to crush all political dissent with ruthless intent is nothing but a tyranny.
“I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery,” Thomas Jefferson had once remarked. Hong Kong’s citizens, it would seem, could not agree more....