Hong Kong res­i­dents march for free­dom as leader draws ‘red line’

Cel­e­bra­tions mark 20th an­niver­sary of han­dover from Bri­tish rule

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY SI­MON DENYER si­mon.denyer@wash­post.com Luna Lin con­trib­uted to this re­port.

hong kong — Tens of thou­sands of Hong Kong res­i­dents marched through the streets in de­fense of their cher­ished free­doms Satur­day, in the face of what many see as a grow­ing threat from main­land China ex­actly two decades af­ter the han­dover from Bri­tish rule.

Ear­lier in the day, China’s pres­i­dent, Xi Jin­ping, marked the 20th an­niver­sary of the han­dover with his sternest warn­ing yet to the ter­ri­tory’s peo­ple: You can have au­ton­omy, but don’t do any­thing that chal­lenges the au­thor­ity of the cen­tral gov­ern­ment or un­der­mines na­tional sovereignty.

Un­der the terms of the 1997 han­dover, China promised to grant Hong Kong a high de­gree of au­ton­omy for at least 50 years, but Xi said it was im­por­tant to have a “cor­rect un­der­stand­ing” of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween one coun­try and two sys­tems.

“One coun­try is like the roots of a tree,” he told Hong Kong’s elite af­ter swear­ing in the ter­ri­tory’s new gov­ern­ing chief ex­ec­u­tive, Car­rie Lam. “For a tree to grow and flour­ish, its roots must run deep and strong. The con­cept of one coun­try, two sys­tems was ad­vanced first and fore­most to re­al­ize and up­hold na­tional sovereignty.”

Many in Hong Kong ac­cused China of vi­o­lat­ing the ter­ri­tory’s au­ton­omy in 2015 by seiz­ing five pub­lish­ers who were putting out gos­sipy books about the Chi­nese lead­er­ship and al­legedly dis­tribut­ing them on the main­land.

Some are also an­gry that Beijing in­ter­vened to disqualify newly elected pro-in­de­pen­dence law­mak­ers who failed to cor­rectly ad­min­is­ter the oath of of­fice last year. Many are wor­ried about a steady ero­sion of press free­dom, and that China is in­creas­ingly de­ter­mined to call the shots in a range of ar­eas.

But Xi made it clear that chal­lenges to Beijing’s au­thor­ity would not be al­lowed.

“Any at­tempt to en­dan­ger China’s sovereignty and se­cu­rity, chal­lenge the power of the cen­tral gov­ern­ment and the au­thor­ity of the Ba­sic Law of the Hong Kong Spe­cial Ad­min­is­tra­tive Re­gion, or use Hong Kong for in­fil­tra­tion or sab­o­tage ac­tiv­i­ties against the main­land, is an act that crosses the red line and is ab­so­lutely im­per­mis­si­ble,” he said.

That mes­sage didn’t ap­pear to go down well on the streets of Hong Kong.

“He’s threat­en­ing Hong Kong’s peo­ple, say­ing he has the power to make us do what he wants,” said An­son Woo, a 19-year-old stu­dent. “But I still have hope. See­ing all the peo­ple around me to­day, the peo­ple of Hong Kong are still fight­ing for what we value.”

Or­ga­niz­ers said 66,000 peo­ple joined Satur­day’s an­nual march, which they said was meant to de­liver a mes­sage to the Chi­nese pres­i­dent. Re­searchers from Hong Kong Univer­sity, how­ever, es­ti­mated the crowd at be­tween 27,000 and 35,000, the South China Morn­ing Post re­ported.

Or­ga­niz­ers had hoped to bring out 100,000 peo­ple, and al­though they blamed rain and ag­gres­sive polic­ing for the lower turnout, a more likely ex­pla­na­tion is fa­tigue — the fail­ure of the 2014 democ­racy protests led many to con­clude that tak­ing to the streets won’t wring con­ces­sions from China.

“Young peo­ple have a sense of pow­er­less­ness, and hence the ap­a­thy,” said Pa­trick Chiu, a 20-yearold stu­dent. “Some young peo­ple even see their way out as mak­ing money and leav­ing Hong Kong at some point.”

A poll by the Chi­nese Univer­sity of Hong Kong showed peo­ple here at­tach greater im­por­tance to ju­di­cial in­de­pen­dence and free­dom of the press than to eco­nomic devel­op­ment.

“We have to take the chance to ex­press our views while we still can,” said Chan Sui Yan, a 15-yearold school­girl. “They say it is one coun­try, two sys­tems, but right now we are los­ing a lot of the rights we value.”

Some pro­test­ers chanted slo­gans de­mand­ing democ­racy, crit­i­ciz­ing the ter­ri­tory’s rul­ing elite or the Com­mu­nist Party. Many called for the re­lease of No­bel lau­re­ate and democ­racy icon Liu Xi­abo, im­pris­oned in China since 2008, who was taken to a hos­pi­tal last week un­der close guard for treat­ment for ad­vanced liver cancer.

In his speech, China’s leader said that the con­cept of one coun­try, two sys­tems was a great suc­cess and should be im­ple­mented “unswerv­ingly” and not be “bent or dis­torted.” While his words made it clear that sovereignty took prece­dence over au­ton­omy, he said nei­ther as­pect should be ne­glected. “Only in this way will the ship of one coun­try, two sys­tems break the waves, sail steadily and last the dis­tance,” he said.

Yet many peo­ple here say China chal­lenged Hong Kong’s au­ton­omy again in March with Lam’s elec­tion as chief ex­ec­u­tive. The for­mer bu­reau­crat, who trailed well be­hind ri­val can­di­date John Tsang in opin­ion polls, was cho­sen by a panel of 1,200 mem­bers of the ter­ri­tory’s elite that was packed with pro-Beijing loy­al­ists. Al­though Tsang was also an es­tab­lish­ment fig­ure, po­lit­i­cal ex­perts say Beijing seemed to want some­one in the chief ex­ec­u­tive’s chair who would not chal­lenge its au­thor­ity.

At the swear­ing-in cer­e­mony Satur­day, Xi also did not shy away from rais­ing two de­mands that have pre­vi­ously brought Hong Kong res­i­dents out on the streets in the hun­dreds of thou­sands. Xi said the ter­ri­tory needed to im­prove its sys­tems “to de­fend na­tional se­cu­rity, sovereignty and devel­op­ment in­ter­ests,” as well as “en­hance ed­u­ca­tion and raise public aware­ness of the his­tory and cul­ture of the Chi­nese na­tion.”

China’s de­mand that Hong Kong pass a na­tional se­cu­rity law prompted mas­sive street protests 14 years ago, while plans to im­ple­ment a pro­gram of “pa­tri­otic ed­u­ca­tion” brought more peo­ple onto the streets in 2012 and helped politi­cize the ter­ri­tory’s youths.

Both plans were sub­se­quently shelved, but Lam has in­di­cated that she wants to put them back on the ta­ble. She also ar­gues that the time isn’t right to sat­isfy a pop­u­lar de­mand for greater democ­racy by al­low­ing a fu­ture chief ex­ec­u­tive to be cho­sen by uni­ver­sal suf­frage.

Marchers said moves to in­ter­fere with the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem smacked of “brain­wash­ing.”

Martin Lee, Hong Kong’s vet­eran pro-democ­racy po­lit­i­cal leader, said China was de­lib­er­ately con­fus­ing pa­tri­o­tism with obedience.

“When they say you must love the coun­try, what they mean is you must obey the Com­mu­nist Party,” he said. “We have no prob­lem with the Com­mu­nist Party as long as it ad­heres to the prom­ises made to us.”

But Lee said China had not ful­filled its prom­ise to grant Hong Kong greater democ­racy. “They kept on post­pon­ing democ­racy,” he said. “That’s why young peo­ple are los­ing their pa­tience.”

On Satur­day morn­ing, a small group of pro-democ­racy pro­test­ers said they were at­tacked by hired thugs when they tried to hold a demon­stra­tion, and then were briefly de­tained and beaten by po­lice.

Joshua Wong, who led protests against pa­tri­otic ed­u­ca­tion in 2012 and in fa­vor of democ­racy in 2014, was among the group and called the in­ci­dent an­other vi­o­la­tion of the prom­ise to main­tain Hong Kong’s val­ues, in­clud­ing the right to free speech. “‘One coun­try, two sys­tems’ has given way to ‘one coun­try, one-and-ahalf sys­tems,’” he told The Wash­ing­ton Post.

“Why would Hong Kong peo­ple want to ac­cept pa­tri­otic ed­u­ca­tion from a coun­try that is ruled by a sin­gle party dic­ta­tor­ship?” he said. “This is the core ques­tion. If the gov­ern­ment is not elected by the peo­ple, how can we have a sense of be­long­ing?”

RO­MAN PILIPEY/EURO­PEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Hong Kong res­i­dents watch fire­works ex­plode over Victoria Har­bor as the city marks the 20th an­niver­sary of its han­dover from Bri­tish to Chi­nese rule. Un­der terms of the han­dover, China promised to grant Hong Kong a high de­gree of au­ton­omy for at least 50 years.

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