Dark days for China democ­racy dream

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

The death of Liu Xiaobo de­prives China’s dis­si­dent move­ment of a cru­cial fig­ure­head at a time when po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism on the main­land is be­ing forced ever deeper un­der­ground, and pro-democ­racy forces in Hong Kong are un­der threat. The world had not heard from No­bel lau­re­ate Liu since he was jailed in 2009 for writ­ing a pe­ti­tion call­ing for po­lit­i­cal re­form, but he re­mained an in­flu­en­tial heavy­weight of China’s democ­racy move­ment and an in­spi­ra­tion for op­po­nents of the Com­mu­nist-ruled sys­tem.

His death in cus­tody from can­cer last week trig­gered rage and frus­tra­tion among the dis­si­dent com­mu­nity but also a sense of hope­less­ness as they face hard­ened re­pres­sion un­der China’s Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping. “When the Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties can so eas­ily con­trol life and death, peo­ple are more afraid to fight,” said ac­tivist Su Yu­tong, who fled to Ger­many af­ter be­ing re­peat­edly de­tained and ques­tioned over her work at an NGO. “They see that even a No­bel Peace Prize win­ner can die in jail.”

There are fears that Liu’s sup­port­ers will now be tar­geted, par­tic­u­larly his wife Liu Xia, who has been un­der house ar­rest since 2010. Vet­eran China spe­cial­ist Willy Lam said most of Liu’s friends were al­ready un­der 24hour sur­veil­lance and that the dis­si­dent com­mu­nity in gen­eral was “highly de­mor­al­ized”. “They re­al­ize they are go­ing through a long win­ter with no light at the end of the tun­nel,” said Lam, a pol­i­tics pro­fes­sor at the Chi­nese Uni­ver­sity of Hong Kong.

The fact that sup­port from the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity is out­weighed by the de­sire of for­eign govern­ments to keep Bei­jing on­side has also hit hard, said Teng Biao, a hu­man rights lawyer and vis­it­ing scholar at Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity. “If the West is re­luc­tant to anger China, there will be no hope,” Teng told AFP. How­ever, some say they will brave it out. One of the coun­try’s most prom­i­nent so­cial ac­tivists Hu Jia, 43, has vowed not to leave China de­spite be­ing un­der po­lice sur­veil­lance since his re­lease from prison six years ago. “I want to stay and make an im­pact on the coun­try,” he told AFP.

Hong Kong re­mem­bers

Liu’s death prompted an out­pour­ing of grief in semi­au­tonomous Hong Kong, where pro-democ­racy forces must also con­tend with an in­creas­ingly as­sertive Bei­jing. “We have to face the same po­lit­i­cal sys­tem and op­pres­sion,” said pro-democ­racy law­maker Ed­die Chu. “There used to be some dis­tance, but now it’s more in­ti­mately felt.” A day af­ter Liu died, Hong Kong’s High Court dis­qual­i­fied four pro-democ­racy law­mak­ers from par­lia­ment fol­low­ing an un­prece­dented in­ter­ven­tion from Bei­jing over the way they in­cor­po­rated protests into their oaths of of­fice last year. Two law­mak­ers who ad­vo­cate com­plete in­de­pen­dence for Hong Kong - a con­cept that in­fu­ri­ates China - had al­ready been ousted from the leg­is­la­ture. Hong Kong still enjoys free­doms unseen on the main­land - thou­sands gath­ered for a memo­rial march to Liu on Satur­day, while over the bor­der even on­line trib­utes to him were re­moved. But a string of in­ci­dents, in­clud­ing the dis­ap­pear­ance of a city book­seller and a reclu­sive main­land ty­coon, have height­ened con­cerns of Bei­jing’s po­lit­i­cal over­reach.

When it was handed back to China by Britain in 1997 un­der a semi-au­ton­o­mous “one coun­try, two sys­tems” deal, some hoped Hong Kong’s colo­nial in­sti­tu­tions, such as an in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary and par­tially elected leg­is­la­ture, would lead to lib­er­al­iza­tion over the bor­der. How­ever, as China’s wealth and global clout sky­rock­eted, Hong Kong’s in­flu­ence waned. Now it is seen by Bei­jing as a hot­bed of sub­ver­sion, par­tic­u­larly since mass protests call­ing for more demo­cratic re­form in 2014.

Xi warned any chal­lenge to Bei­jing’s con­trol over Hong Kong crossed a “red line” ear­lier this month when he vis­ited the city to mark 20 years since the han­dover. Jonathan Sul­li­van, di­rec­tor of the China Pol­icy In­sti­tute at the Uni­ver­sity of Not­ting­ham, de­scribed the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment as “in­creas­ingly cir­cum­scribed”. “It re­mains to be seen if (the democ­racy move­ment) feels it can ad­vance its agenda through the ‘le­git­i­mate’ po­lit­i­cal process. And if not will there be a resur­gence of street pol­i­tics?” asked Sul­li­van. The move­ment it­self is strug­gling for di­rec­tion, hav­ing splin­tered be­tween vet­eran ac­tivists call­ing for change across China and younger Hong Kong-cen­tric “lo­cal­ists” who say the city must just fight for it­self. An­a­lysts agree that by-elec­tions for the seats of the ousted law­mak­ers will prove whether or not the pro-democ­racy mes­sage is alive and kick­ing.

Law­maker Chu says the move­ment needs a clearer vi­sion, but must also ac­cept that change will not come quickly. “Liu Xiaobo per­se­vered, sac­ri­fic­ing even his life, not be­cause he knew he would suc­ceed but be­cause he saw him­self as part of a long-term process,” Chu told AFP. “Maybe Hong Kong is like this too. It’s not about set­ting a goal for vic­tory at a cer­tain time.” — AFP

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