The Liberty Expose: The Crushing of Hong Kong

It should come as no surprise to even the most irregular observers of world affairs that China seeks to become to hegemon of Asia. For many in the United States (though certainly not all), this reality is disregarded or ignored. To China’s neighbors, the expansion of Chinese power is a potential existential threat to their way of commerce and life, with nations such as Japan reinterpreting its constitution to allow for more flexibility in defense affairs, and the Philippines preparing to expand its power in disputed islands. It is not unknown as to what a Pax Sinica would look like in the region – Hong Kong provides a case of study of life under China’s shadow

It was supposed to symbolize a new era in China: the 1997 reunification of Hong Kong and the People’s Republic, after the former existed under the British crown for more than a century. It was called “one country, two systems.” Hong Kong was to be a sovereign semi autonomous region within China, with many hoping that the prosperity it enjoyed was through its acceptance of openness to be beacon to the authoritarian China across the Pearl River Delta. That is not what happened though.

Twenty years after the unification with mainland China, the state of freedom and rights in Hong Kong looks dire. Since the return of Hong Kong to China, the Chinese regime has slowly constricted the air of openness from Hong Kong: with the most recent assault being the elevation of an unpopular, though pro-Chinese, candidate to the Hong Kong executive. Actions taken by China, such as the crushing of Hong Kong, are providing an example of the true nature of the Chinese regime – and the world it wants to shape.

Hong Kong, an island located in southeast China, was acquired by Britain during its first opium war with imperial China. In 1984, Britain under the Thatcher government and post-Mao China singed the Sino-British Joint Declaration. In the Declaration, the UK agreed to cede Hong Kong to China, though under the conditions that the Chinese Communist Party does not exert influence into Hong Kong until 2047, and that China does not infringe on the capitalist way of life that Hong Kong enjoys. Britain upheld their end of the agreement, and in 1997 transferred authority of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China. China, and the Chinese Communist Party that rules it, has not upheld theirs.  

What ensued has been a campaign of growing Chinese power in Hong Kong – with the trend accelerating under the tenure of Chinese executive Xi Jinping, an executive that many believe to be the most powerful since Mao.

The growing Chinese power in the region has manifested itself through the election of Carrie Lam as the Chief Executive of Hong Kong. The oligarchical 1,194-election committee that consists of pro-Beijing business leaders and politicians chose the otherwise unpopular Lam due to her pro-Beijing stance. It has been reported that representatives from Beijing called committee members with instructions to vote for Lam. Lam defeated the popular John Tsang, a more democratic candidate who didn’t have the pro-Beijing views required to rise in the Chinese dominated politics of the new Hong Kong.

While Hong Kong doesn’t qualify as a liberal democracy, it is still nonetheless an opening society where freedom of speech, the press, and religion is tolerated. But with the ascent of Carrie Lam to the presidency signifies the growing of Beijing’s shadow over Hong Kong. The semi-autonomous city-state will not get the Voltairean “enlightened despot” that Hong Kong has come to expect. As one democracy activist put it “it was a selection, not an election”.

Because of actions like this, in 2014, more than 200,000 citizens of Hong Kong took to the streets in a protest to push back against the growing Chinese embranchment, in what was dubbed the “umbrella revolution” – a term that originates from the umbrellas the protesters used to block tear gas. The protest went on to last 79 days. The leaders of the movement have now been charged years after the event took place (luckily for them, the consequences were not as severe as what they could have been).

A particular target of China is booksellers. In late 2015 Lam Wing Kee, a bookseller who specializes in books that annoy the authorities in ruling Chinese Communist Party, was detained for eight months due to his business practices. Booksellers like Lam went months without contact, and were forced to give scripted confessions on TV – an Orwellian act reminiscent of what a non-state actor would commit, not a sovereign nation.

The Chinese authorities stated that Lam committed the crime of shipping illegal books to the mainland, and Chinese authorities demanded a list of his customers, to which Lam refused. There have been five booksellers reported to have been kidnapped by Chinese “special forces” and endure hardships similar to Lam Wing Kee. There has been a fear of speaking out, do to many of the booksellers having family in mainland China.

The crushing of Hong Kong does not go unnoticed by other nations. Taiwan is an example, whose official name is the Republic of China (It was founded by retreating Chinese Nationalists who claimed to be the true Chinese government). The popular appeal of reuniting with China determines significantly when Taiwanese see the repercussions of such actions, such as the ones being committed in Hong Kong. Taiwan recently elected an anti-Beijing government, and tensions between the two Chinas has been rising.

The Chinese government is the architect of its own peril. The Center Kingdom has been provided with an excellent opportunity to elevate the status of China in the world. Until recently, with a relative decline of American involvement in the region, as well as a powerful economy, China could have been a responsible member of the Asian and larger global community.

China could have prosecuted a campaign of cooperation with its former adversaries in Asia. It instead advanced a campaign of militarism and revanchism through bankruptcy in the South and East China seas, leading to a rise in tensions with its neighbors. The Chinese government could have adopted the ways of Hong Kong by incorporating openness into the mainland – a policy that would lead to a more prosperous Chinese people. Instead, under an accelerated path led by Xi Jinping, China has embraced a darker vision of human freedom. Other nations are watching the treatment Hong Kong has suffer, and now know what to expect from Chinese sovereignty – and they are unwilling to submit.