Federalism

Hong Kong: Courageous Protests in Defense of Freedom

Since June 11, the people of Hong Kong have flooded the streets to protest legislation that would allow Chinese extradition of Hong Kong citizens charged with crimes. This would effectively subjugate them to China’s criminal justice system which is lacking in due process standards according to Freedom House. Trials in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are generally closed to the public and have a 98 percent conviction rate.

If adopted, this measure would also further loosen Hong Kong’s already tenuous grip on the freedoms that China pledged to preserve when it agreed to the “one country, two systems” framework. It is estimated that two million of the city’s seven million residents turned out on Sunday to demand: the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill (suspension of the legislation is insufficient); the resignation of their Chief Executive Carrie Lam; and an end to political persecution in Hong Kong.

The pretext for changing the law was the murder of a Hong Kong woman in Taiwan allegedly committed by her boyfriend, also a Hong Kong citizen. China used the highly charged situation to try to amend the statute so that the alleged killer could face trial in China. However, the government in Beijing underestimated how shrewdly the people of Hong Kong would recognize the profound threat to their sovereignty that the new law would pose. Technically the legislation excludes those accused of political crimes. However Chinese authorities often charge political dissidents with non-political crimes such as bribery and blackmail and the Chinese Communist Party exerts influence over all aspects of judicial activity including the appointment of judges.

A little historical background helps to understand the complicated relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland. In 1997 in accordance with an agreement struck by Great Britain and China, Hong Kong was transferred to the PRC with the promise that as a Special Administrative Region, the city would be permitted to maintain its way of life for at least 50 years. This included maintenance of its press, speech and economic freedoms. In return, Hong Kong ceded authority over foreign and defense policy.

China failed to live up to this pledge, gradually chipping away at Hong Kong’s sovereignty and limiting the liberty of its citizens. The government in Beijing selects Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and according to Freedom House, half of the Legislative Council is chosen indirectly in a way that favors “pro-Beijing interests.” China expels foreign journalists, jails dissidents and even engages in renditions of criminal suspects. This is all inconsistent with the “one country, two systems” principle. The situation came to a head in 2014 when pro-democracy demonstrations broke out. These protests were dubbed the “Umbrella Movement” because activists used umbrellas to repel pepper spray. Some of the leaders of this uprising are in prison – many who have been released are participating in the current wave of demonstrations.

From low tech masks to obscure facial features to removing Chinese apps and installing virtual private networks on mobile devices, today’s demonstrators are taking precautions to avoid China’s gaze. These protective measures are warranted because while China was restricting Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy, it was becoming increasingly repressive with its own citizens as well. With the implementation of the 2017 Cybersecurity Law internet censorship and surveillance expanded and AI and facial recognition technology were added to the mix. China’s Uyghur minority was targeted especially aggressively.

During the first months of 2018, China’s National People’s Congress removed constitutional presidential term limits paving the way for the current president Xi Jinping to be leader for life, according him status comparable to Mao Zedong. This transformed China from an autocracy with few curbs on presidential power to one where the president has something verging on unchecked authority.

Consistent adherence to rule of law has helped make Hong Kong a global commercial center. The Heritage Foundation’s 2019 Index of Economic Freedom ranked Hong Kong as “the world’s freest economy” giving the city high marks for property rights and government integrity. China’s interference in Hong Kong’s political system places this coveted status at risk.

Hong Kong is fighting autocracy with a courage and tenacity that would inspire the praise of America’s Founding Fathers. It is clear that the citizens of that remarkable region understand that their entire future is at stake.


In Depth: Federalism

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