By Henry Srebrnik, [Moncton, NB] Times & Transcript
Police in Hong Kong arrested at least 60 protesters for “unlawful assembly” on Oct. 1 They had gathered for a demonstration, timed to coincide with China’s National Day, to draw attention to Beijing’s increasing influence in the semi-autonomous territory.
On June 30, a new national security law went into effect in Hong Kong. The former British colony, under Chinese rule since 1997, had seen Beijing tighten its grip over the past few years, but this, as pro-democracy protester Joshua Wong tweeted, “marks the end of Hong Kong that the world knew before.”
It signaled President and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping’s desire to seize more control in order to squash pro-democracy protests in the city. The scale and intensity of Hong Kong’s protest movement and growing calls for democracy, and even some calls for independence, caught China’s leaders off guard.
“There was this idea before about China being cautious and trying to cultivate its soft power around the world,” remarked Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. “Those times are gone with Xi Jinping.”
The law supersedes Hong Kong’s Basic Law and the “one country, two systems” that was supposed to remain in effect until 2047. It effectively puts an end to the territory’s autonomy.
The Hong Kong government is establishing a national security council headed by a chief executive as well as a new central government commission. It will become the highest executive body in Hong Kong and enable Beijing to supervise local authorities in executing the law.
In addition, the chief executive will also be able to select judges to handle national security cases, which experts warn could jeopardize the city's judicial independence.
The new law jeopardizes civil liberties and Hong Kong’s independent judicial system, which has allowed the financial hub to thrive over the decades economically. It is so broad that it effectively criminalises dissent and is meant to silence the protest movements that have grown in numbers and intensity since 2013.
The new national security law was met with defiance, as protesters took to the streets in defiance of the sweeping security legislation. It happened to coincide with an annual rally marking the anniversary of the colony’s takeover by China in 1997. In Beijing, Zhang Xiaoming, executive deputy director of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, described the new security law as a “birthday gift” to Hong Kong.
The protests in Hong Kong had intensified in June 2019 after Carrie Lam, chief executive of the Hong Kong government, tried to enact an extradition law that would have allowed residents to be transferred to the mainland to face an often harsh judicial system.
China has denounced the protests as acts of terrorism and accused Western nations of fomenting the unrest.
On July 31, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that she was postponing the Sept. 6 legislative elections, citing the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This postponement is entirely made based on public safety reasons, there were no political considerations,” she claimed. However, the opposition accused the government of using the pandemic as a pretext.
Opposition activists had hoped to obtain a majority in the Legislative Council. Pro-democracy candidates had made unprecedented gains in 2019 district council elections, winning 17 out of 18 councils.
By the time those elections happen in 2021, opposition candidates will have been excluded from the ballot.
Hong Kong’s economic stature was supposed to guarantee its liberties -- instead, it is now losing both. In 1997, it had an economy worth about a quarter of China’s. Today, that share has shrunk to less than three per cent.
“I foresee that the international status of Hong Kong as a city will be gone very soon,” remarked Dennis Kwok, an opposition lawmaker. Financial institutions are eyeing Singapore as a safer haven.
But Hong Kong, a British creation with its own political culture, retains its separate identity, nurtured over almost two centuries. This has only strengthened during the past year, and that will perhaps be the most salient result of the protest movement.
Hong Kong’s seven million citizens have a long history of resisting imperialism, both British and Chinese, and they will continue that tradition into the future.