Hong Kong’s free­dom fades

Chi­nese pres­i­dent lays down Bei­jing’s vi­sion Pro-democ­racy groups feel sense of fore­bod­ing

The Guardian Weekly - - Front page - Tom Phillips Hong Kong

For pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, the 20th an­niver­sary of Hong Kong’s re­turn to China was a mo­ment to toast the re­uni­fi­ca­tion of a na­tion and hail its un­stop­pable rise. But for ac­tivists such as Ed­die Chu, one of the lead­ing lights of a new gen­er­a­tion of pro-democ­racy politi­cians, it has be­come an oc­ca­sion for some­thing quite dif­fer­ent.

“Boot-lick­ing, un­prece­dented boot-lick­ing!” he says, a smile break­ing across his face as he re­flects on how many mem­bers of the lo­cal elite chose to mark two decades of Chi­nese rule by plas­ter­ing their homes and busi­nesses with pa­tri­otic slo­gans and red flags in the hope, he sus­pects, of cur­ry­ing eco­nomic favour. “That is quite the op­po­site of what Hong Kong peo­ple wanted to see in 1997. We wanted to see democ­racy. Democ­racy is not boot-lick­ing.”

Last Satur­day, China’s au­thor­i­tar­ian ruler, at the cul­mi­na­tion of a rare three-day tour of the for­mer Bri­tish colony, led cel­e­bra­tions of two decades of Chi­nese con­trol along­side Car­rie Lam, who was sworn in as Hong Kong’s chief ex­ec­u­tive. At the fla­grais­ing cer­e­mony, just down the road from where the um­brella “rev­o­lu­tion” of dis­sent hap­pened in the au­tumn of 2014, the pair re­mem­bered the mo­ment this city of 7.3 mil­lion res­i­dents re­turned to China af­ter 156 years of colo­nial rule. But in his ad­dress, Xi warned that Hong Kong must not be used as a launch­pad to chal­lenge Bei­jing’s author­ity, and that ques­tion­ing of China’s sovereignty “crosses a red line”. Xi said Hong Kong needed to do more to pro­tect China’s se­cu­rity and im­ple­ment pa­tri­otic ed­u­ca­tion pro­grammes. Both is­sues re­main deeply un­pop­u­lar among city res­i­dents.

His re­marks were a warn­ing to in­creas­ingly vo­cal po­lit­i­cal fac­tions call­ing for greater au­ton­omy from China or even in­de­pen­dence. Af­ter Xi flew out of Hong Kong last Satur­day af­ter­noon, tens of thou­sands of pro-democ­racy pro­test­ers took to the streets in a show of dis­sent.

Twenty years af­ter Bri­tain’s de­par­ture thrust this hy­per­ac­tive lair of cap­i­tal­ism into the hands of a dic­ta­to­rial regime, cam­paign­ers such as Chu fear Bei­jing is pre­par­ing to up the ante in its bat­tle for con­trol. Ten pro-democ­racy leg­is­la­tors, of which he is one, are at risk of los­ing their jobs as a re­sult of gov­ern­ment-backed le­gal chal­lenges against them. There are fears that un­der Hong Kong’s new leader, elected by a tightly con­trolled se­lec­tion com­mit­tee, there will be a re­newed push to en­act con­tro­ver­sial anti-sub­ver­sion leg­is­la­tion.

Prior to his ad­dress, Xi had sought to strike an up­beat tone dur­ing his visit, but re­cent com­ments by an­other se­nior Com­mu­nist party fig­ure – who vowed to con­sol­i­date China’s con­trol of the for­mer colony – put ac­tivists on edge. Zhang De­jiang, China’s num­ber three of­fi­cial, warned Hong Kong could only be gov­erned by those who posed “no threat to pros­per­ity and sta­bil­ity”. Feed­ing the sense of fore­bod­ing is a feel­ing that many western

gov­ern­ments have cut the ac­tivists loose for fear of dam­ag­ing their eco­nomic re­la­tion­ships with China.

Xi’s mes­sage to Bri­tain was blunt, bor­der­ing on dis­dain­ful. China would not brook out­side “in­ter­fer­ence” in the ex-colony. In other words, for­get about those guar­an­tees of a free, open society ne­go­ti­ated be­fore the 1997

han­dover. “Any at­tempt to en­dan­ger China’s sovereignty and chal­lenge the power of the cen­tral gov­ern­ment is ab­so­lutely im­per­mis­si­ble,” Xi said.

Martin Lee, a 79-year-old bar­ris­ter and the el­der states­man of Hong Kong’s democ­racy move­ment is, like many, con­vinced China is grad­u­ally strip­ping away the free­doms promised un­der the “one coun­try, two sys­tems” for­mula, and that Bri­tain is do­ing noth­ing to in­ter­vene. “The Bri­tish gov­ern­ment is just aw­ful. I’m afraid I can­not find any kind words to say about that,” he says. Suzanne Pep­per,

a vet­eran chron­i­cler of the city’s quest for democ­racy, said cam­paign­ers could no longer count on Lon­don or Wash­ing­ton for sup­port: “As long as there is not blood in the streets, they don’t care.”

Not ev­ery­body was lament­ing last Satur­day’s an­niver­sary. The streets around Xi’s waterfront ho­tel were dot­ted with clus­ters of pro-gov­ern­ment sup­port­ers, and sky­scrapers were decked out in bright red ban­ners and neon dis­plays say­ing: “Warmly cel­e­brate the 20th an­niver­sary of Hong Kong’s re­turn to China.”

Many more greeted the an­niver­sary with non­cha­lance. ce. Chu es­ti­mated that about a third of the pop­u­la­tion was split be­tween pro-democ­ra­cy­cracy and pro-gov­ern­mentt sup­port­ers. The rest “couldn’tuldn’t care less” and weree most wor­ried about the traf­ficffic jams caused by the se­cu­rity rity op­er­a­tion to pro­tect thehe

pres­i­dent. Lee said the lack of in­ter­est many young peo­ple felt un­der­lined how dis­con­nected they were from main­land China. He pointed to a re­cent poll sug­gest­ing only 3% of 18- to 29-year-olds con­sid­ered them­selves Chi­nese, the low­est rate since 1997.

For all the un­cer­tainty, Hong Kong’s protest move­ment ap­pears in a buoy­ant mood. Or­gan­is­ers said around 60,000 peo­ple turned out for last Satur­day’s pro-democ­racy march – and last Septem­ber a record num­ber of ac­tivists were elected to the leg­isla­tive coun­cil. Many could be forced from of­fice, how­ever. “If two to three of them lose their seats, the whole po­lit­i­cal bal­ance will change to­tally and then Bei­jing will have ab­so­lute con­trol of this leg­is­la­ture,” warned Chu.

Pep­per is not op­ti­mistic Bei­jing would of­fer con­ces­sions to ac­tivists, even though Car­rie Lam has pledged to “heal the di­vide” and build bridges. “This is a bridge be­tween democ­racy and dic­ta­tor­ship,” said Pep­per. “How she is go­ing to bridge that, I don’t know.”

An­thony Wal­lace/Getty

In the pic­ture … pro-democ­racy pro­test­ers march in Hong Kong last week­end

Hong Kong’s new chief ex­ec­u­tive, Car­rie Lam

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