Active Stocks
Sat Mar 02 2024 12:49:58
  1. Tata Steel share price
  2. 155.15 3.43%
  1. HDFC Bank share price
  2. 1,430.35 -0.06%
  1. State Bank Of India share price
  2. 773.05 0.49%
  1. Tata Motors share price
  2. 988.40 1.15%
  1. Wipro share price
  2. 522.65 0.67%
Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  The rapidly rising price of liberty in Beijing-repressed Hong Kong
BackBack

The rapidly rising price of liberty in Beijing-repressed Hong Kong

A freedom vigil has been getting harder to maintain as China makes a mockery of its 1997 promise

The city that had once offered refuge to Chinese capital fleeing the Communist takeover of China in 1949 and become a beacon of economic and many political freedoms, is now more clearly Chinese than at any time in its modern-day history (Photo: Reuters)Premium
The city that had once offered refuge to Chinese capital fleeing the Communist takeover of China in 1949 and become a beacon of economic and many political freedoms, is now more clearly Chinese than at any time in its modern-day history (Photo: Reuters)

Speaking in Dublin in 1790, the Irish politician and judge John Philpot Curran said, “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance," a pithier version of which has since been ascribed to many, including Thomas Jefferson. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

When I lived in Singapore and Hong Kong as a reporter for Southeast Asia in the 1990s, other foreign correspondents and I often wondered which location was the freest in the region. Thailand had freedoms, but it had its dreadful lese majeste laws; Singapore was a safe first- world city, but it had severe libel laws; the Philippines had the raucous democracy that emerges from years of suppression but also had its share of violence targeting journalists. In the Suharto-era (ended in 1998) Indonesia frequently jailed critics for long terms, and Malaysia seemed a gentler version of Singapore until you crossed the boundaries of what could or could not be said about its judiciary or various ethnic groups.

That left you with Hong Kong, a British colony till June 1997 that did not have a representative electoral democracy, but where you could operate as if you were in a modern democracy. Your cartoons could caricature British governors, local officials and leaders of Communist China; you could say what you wished about any country in the region and not worry about watching your words. Arguably, Indian media was just as free back then too, but India wasn’t (nor is) part of the region, as Southeast Asia began at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, where South Asia ended.

In October 2019, I was in Hong Kong and walked with democracy protestors who marched in a disciplined manner, with loudspeakers playing the hauntingly beautiful melody, Glory to Hong Kong. They were protesting an extradition bill that Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam had introduced, which many feared would allow Hong Kong to send suspects to China, and whose power would be used against trade unionists and human rights activists in Hong Kong who monitored China from the territory. Millions took to the streets at that time. The protests were partly inspired by Bruce Lee’s saying: Be like water, formless, shapeless, seeking its own level to keep advancing. Protestors avoided streets with large police presence and swiftly moved elsewhere.

That Hong Kong now seems to belong to another era.

In early 2020, when I met a leading Hong Kong dissident at a literature festival in Norway, he could still speak of his confidence in the rule of law. After all, China had promised to Britain and the international community that Hong Kong’s essential characteristics would not be changed for 50 years beginning the date of its handover in 1997. Half a century was a long time.

But that depends on time perceptions, as Jan Morris noted in her book Hong Kong: Epilogue of an Empire. In 1898, instead of taking New Territories on a permanent lease from imperial China, as was the past practice, the British decided to take it on a 99-year-lease. For British administrators, this lease was a novel instrument of managing land rights, but, as Morris noted, “It was settled that the lease would run for a century, until 1997–an eternity by British standards, a flicker of the eye by Chinese."

Perhaps the international community assumed that over the next half century, Hong Kong would transform China, by showing the mainland what it could achieve with economic freedom and civil liberties. Instead, China is succeeding in turning Hong Kong into a Chinese city. In June 2020, Hong Kong had a Beijing-inspired national security law. Many newspapers closed down and dissidents were arrested, even as some academics left and some non-profits closed shop.

Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal has foreign judges to ensure adherence to common law standards, but last week two such judges resigned, saying they could not remain on the Court without appearing to endorse an administration that had departed from the values of political freedom and freedom of expression. Lam strongly denied the allegations, but announced the next day that she would not seek another term.

Lam’s tenure has also seen regulatory overreach, as Hong Kong has sought to extend its national security law beyond island territory, seeking to restrain international websites (such as Hong Kong Watch) which are critical of Hong Kong’s politics. Her term in office has been disastrous not only for its terrible political fallout, her management of the covid pandemic has also been a failure. While Hong Kong had managed at first to keep the pandemic in check (although its restrictions led some expatriates to leave), the latest covid wave has killed thousands and the territory has run out of coffins. Suspicious elderly citizens had refused to get vaccinated, which made them more vulnerable to infection. But Hong Kong seemed more content to follow the Chinese model of strict lockdowns, tight border controls and harsh quarantine rules.

The one-country-two-systems model is barely recognizable today. The city that had once offered refuge to Chinese capital fleeing the Communist takeover of China in 1949 and become a beacon of economic and many political freedoms, is now more clearly Chinese than at any time in its modern-day history. And that’s not good for its people.

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

Unlock a world of Benefits! From insightful newsletters to real-time stock tracking, breaking news and a personalized newsfeed – it's all here, just a click away! Login Now!

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Check all the latest action on Budget 2024 here. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.
More Less
Published: 06 Apr 2022, 10:17 PM IST
Next Story footLogo
Recommended For You
Switch to the Mint app for fast and personalized news - Get App