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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Opinion | Hong Kong is losing its freedom and the world mustn’t look away

Its people deserve our support as they fight China’s efforts to snatch their democratic rights away

With the world grappling with coronavirus and the United States president out playing golf, China has sensed an opportunity. It has passed a sweeping law that undermines Hong Kong’s civil liberties and restricts fundamental rights. Many in Hong Kong do not want independence; they want to be left alone; they want to protect the freedoms they have, and China is taking away those freedoms.

Books critical of the Chinese government are reportedly being removed from public libraries. Companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google and Microsoft have said they won’t comply with government orders seeking user data until they have familiarized themselves with the new law. Inscrutably, TikTok, a Chinese company, is pulling out of Hong Kong. Human rights groups based in Hong Kong may have to reassess their presence and staffing. The city that once boasted of Asia’s freest media is closer to a future that was always possible and dreaded. The aftermath of the Asian economic crisis of 1997-98 had led to the closure of some publications based there—Far Eastern Economic Review (where I was correspondent), Asiaweek, and the Wall Street Journal in Asia (for both of which I wrote), all folded over time.

History is speeding up; what was feared in 2047 is happening now. Hong Kong was promised 50 years of autonomy under a Sino-British Accord of 1984, but China is in a hurry. It has pressed the fast forward key. The world watches a disaster in slow motion.

That’s not mixing metaphors. China had always wanted to turn Hong Kong into a Chinese city; the world is watching what was predictable but avoidable. It may seem as if nothing has changed. The Hong Kong skyline looks the same; the Hong Kong dollar is still pegged to the greenback; the odd sampan turns up in the harbour; and the MTR stations are still called Admiralty and Central—surely it can’t be so bad? The form remains, the substance changes.

When the Sino-British Accord was signed, creating the so-called Basic Law and the “one-country-two-systems" model, it was based on an assumption that in 50 years, China would become more democratic and Hong Kong’s freedoms would infect China. Hong Kong offered values, like the rule of law if not democracy, and the protection of rights if not full representation. It could only have worked if China played by the rules under the world’s vigilance.

At first, China was patient. It imitated Hong Kong by building shiny glass towers, attracting foreign capital, investing in infrastructure, luring companies to employ Chinese workers who couldn’t form real trade unions, and gave foreign investors what they loved: an ability to make profits, an uncomplaining, pliant workforce, and world-class infrastructure. True, investors remained concerned about transparency, corruption and the rule of law, but for that, there was Hong Kong with its intellectual property lawyers, tax experts, and private bankers. As time passed and Shanghai and other cities prospered, Hong Kong’s singular importance began to diminish. And what it had and China didn’t (some political freedom) was not a priority for most investors, nor for many governments.

To be sure, the Basic Law ensured the rule of law and restrained state power. In the years before 1997, governor Chris Patten tried to ensure some rights for Hong Kong’s voters, for which he received abuse from the Chinese. Each year on 4 June, thousands of people come to Victoria Park in Hong Kong with candles, holding a vigil for Tiananmen Square martyrs, infuriating China. But clever dictators can play the long game, and this is Xi Jinping’s moment.

One by one, Hong Kong’s freedoms have begun to vanish—death by a thousand cuts. The elite don’t want to upset the dragon, but the protestors had adopted “water" as their metaphor, spreading across the city in unpredictable ways; water seeking its own level, finding its pathways. They had risen in 2014 with the umbrella revolution; they rose again last year, opposing a dangerous extradition law.

I was in Hong Kong last year, and with a friend who lives there, I had walked among demonstrators near Causeway Bay. There were thousands of people, many of them wearing masks to conceal their identity. They were peaceful and spirited; they sang the rousing anthem of the movement, Glory to Hong Kong; they boycotted shops owned by pro-Beijing businesses; students painted campus walls with graffiti of slogans from the French and American revolutions and other liberation movements; and they cleaned up the litter after the demonstrations so that the city could resume business. The students and people I spoke to wanted to preserve what they had; they did not want more, and now they will get less.

Hong Kong is culturally Chinese, but its people speak Cantonese, not Mandarin; they use an older script, not the simplified modern text. China fears what might happen if it becomes Hong Kong. Were that to happen, it would be good for China’s people. What Hong Kong’s brave people deserve is global solidarity, but what they’re getting is apathy, as world leaders go about learning the correct angle at which etiquette would have them bend while bowing to the emperor in Beijing.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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