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Hong Kong’s War Against Authoritarianism: How Did It Start and What Is at Stake for the World?
By Kaxton Siu

After three months of increasingly violent conflict between police and protesters, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam finally announced on Sept. 4 that she would formally withdraw a controversial bill that would have enabled the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China and other countries. Opposition to the bill triggered massive protests in June that morphed into a broader protest movement against the government in Hong Kong and authorities in Beijing, calling ultimately for greater democratic freedoms in this semi- autonomous region of China. Contrary to the expectations of more hopeful observers, Lam’s “concession” has done little to cool down tensions within Hong Kong society.

 

Almost nightly, in different streets, neighborhoods, housing estates and subway stations, violent conflicts between police and protesters continue, and police are escalating their use of force against protestors and even ordinary citizens and journalists. Since the start of the new academic year in September, the social movement has spread into secondary schools and universities, with many students participating in class boycotts, holding hands inside and outside schools and universities to express their unhappiness with police brutality over the past three months.

 

The international community, meanwhile, has begun to express its concern with the increasingly forceful crackdown against protesters. Notably, the US Congress has already tabled the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.” The bill requires the secretary of state to report annually to Congress on whether Hong Kong is following the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the Hong Kong Basic Law (the city’s mini-constitution), and the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in order to adequately protect Hong Kong’s autonomy, human rights and democracy. The report must also evaluate whether any Hong Kong government officials should be penalized if their actions violate human rights in Hong Kong.

 

The rapid deterioration of the situation in the city over the past three months has not only stunned the people of Hong Kong, it has also puzzled the international community (the mainland Chinese government included). Why would a proposed extradition bill set off a massive social moment in Hong Kong? What do the protesters’ various demands reveal about Hong Kong’s current state-market-civil society relations? More important, what are the implications of the city-wide movement for the world in the context of an increasingly powerful and authoritarian China?

 

The Idea of Freedom as a Fundamental Social Value


If we carefully examine the successive waves of mass movements in Hong Kong since 1997 — the year of the British handover of Hong Kong to China — it is not hard to discover that almost all of these movements are tightly connected with one of the most fundamental social values in Hong Kong — freedom. That connection has its origins in Hong Kong’s postwar history and the development of a Hong Kong identity.

 

Hong Kong is a society of migrants. Since the end of the Second World War, Hong Kong had been a place that received and settled various types of refugees from war and political disturbances in Mainland China. For these refugees, Hong Kong was a place where they could be shielded from political turmoil and preserve their individual freedoms. To the older generation of Hong Kong people today, these individual freedoms usually mean economic freedom (the ability to choose one’s own job and seek to make a decent living), not political freedom. However, the aspiration to exercise individual freedom and to be protected from political constraints has been rooted in Hong Kong society since colonial times.

 

It can be said that Hong Kong society had to wait until the 1960s to experience fundamental change. Demographically, a generation of locally born postwar baby boomers grew up and became the middle class of Hong Kong society. This generation not only inherited the vision of Hong Kong as a “city of freedom” from their predecessors, but compared to their parents, they identified themselves strongly with a distinctive local identity (Hongkonger). To a great extent, this Hongkonger identity was constructed in relation to the “Mainland Chinese” identity. Understanding these historical details is crucial to understanding Hong Kong’s current situation, especially how the protest movement could bring out onto the streets different generations, mobilizing between one and two million people in successive protests early on. Based on the city’s tradition of aspiring to and exercising individual freedom, as well as the construction of a Hongkonger identity, Hong Kong’s civil society and social movements started to develop in the 1960s and 1970s. The Sino-British negotiations on the handover of Hong Kong in 1997 began in the early 1980s and resulted in the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984, five years before the disastrous Tiananmen Square movement in 1989. There was then a period of rapid political reforms in Hong Kong in the final transition period leading up to 1997 that not only turned democracy into one of the key social-development indicators in Hong Kong society, but also consolidated the view among Hong Kong people that the city is a place where individual freedom is guaranteed (in contrast to China as an authoritarian state).

 

In its post-handover era, especially after 2003, Hong Kong experienced another drastic social and political transformation. In 2003, the Hong Kong government tabled a controversial national security bill (called for under Article 23 of the Basic Law), thus making Hong Kong citizens feel that their individual rights and freedoms were being severely threatened. Large protests over the bill at the time eventually led the government to back down. In 2012, the Hong Kong government initiated another controversial move, the patriotic curriculum (the so-called civic and national education curriculum) in secondary schools. As a result, it turned secondary schools into an avenue of politics, and caused students, teachers and parents to squarely face the possibility that freedom of speech would be repressed. At the same time, since 2004, a new subject, Liberal Studies, was introduced into the secondary school curriculum, encouraging Hong Kong students to use multiple and critical perspectives to understand Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese social and political affairs. All these social and political events not only rapidly politicized Hong Kong society down to the level of schools and families, but also developed another more radical local identity to resist the increasingly strong and authoritarian Chinese state.

 

Then, in 2014, came the so-called Umbrella Movement — a widespread social protest movement lasting almost 80 days that called for greater democratic rights. Its far-reaching impacts have been vivid in the sense that it not only turned social movements into an “everyday affair” in Hong Kong society, but also enabled youngsters in Hong Kong to learn to use social movements as a means of political struggle by occupying streets and joining class boycotts. As such, it can be said that the city-wide protest movement that has gripped Hong Kong over the past three months has its roots in Hong Kong’s colonial and post-colonial history and the construction of a local identity. In short, the government’s extradition bill contained all the elements that could touch the political nerves of Hong Kong people, thus becoming the fuse that set off the current protest movement.

 

Rapidly Changing Relations Among State, Market and Society


What does the state of Hong Kong today reveal about the city’s state-market-civil society relations?

 

First, regarding state-society relations, several “pillars” of Hong Kong society (freedom of speech, the rule of law and clean government) that developed in the colonial era have been seriously challenged in the past three months. Since July 21, when local gangsters brutally beat protesters and ordinary passengers in the Yuen Long subway station, the Hong Kong police force has been widely blamed for colluding with the gangsters and ignoring their brutality. After that, with the police escalating their own violence toward protestors and conducting widespread arrests of activists and protestors, Hong Kong citizens have repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of the Hong Kong government as well as challenged the image of Hong Kong police, once dubbed “Asia’s finest,” as uncorrupted civil servants and law enforcers upholding the principle of the rule of law.

 

Second, the representative politics that developed in Hong Kong since the 1980s has been shelved over the past few months. Before June 2019, even though the local legislature — known as the Legislative Council, or LegCo — has been dominated by pro-government and pro-Beijing political parties, parties from the pan-democratic camp and the pro-government camp still used LegCo and other institutional channels to engage in political bargaining. At the same time, civil society organizations made use of extra-institutional channels to support political parties in the legislature. However, entering the latter half of June, especially after large-scale protests involving over a million people, Hong Kong’s political energy was suddenly released and made Hong Kong people widely believe that mass movement is the only means to resolve political problems. The situation worsened after the LegCo chairman stopped its operations, which greatly reduced the space to use institutional channels to solve political problems, thus completely pushing Hong Kong into becoming a “movement society.”

 

Third, the rapidly changing role of the “market” in Hong Kong society is becoming increasingly important. Traditionally, Hong Kong’s status as an international financial center has been seen as a foundation of its free market economy. It is also widely believed to be one of the characteristics distinguishing Hong Kong from “ordinary” Chinese cities. More importantly, the narrative of Hong Kong as a free market economy has been established on the principle that economic freedom can be exercised in different marketplaces in Hong Kong, and that the government and other political factors shouldn’t intervene. However, since the current protest movement started, this image of a “non-interventionist market” has been increasingly challenged, exposing the vulnerability of Hong Kong as a free market economy.

 

On the one hand, since the 1980s, Hong Kong’s economy has started integrating with China’s economy. Since 2003, Hong Kong’s economy has been largely dependent on China, especially the tourist and retail sectors, which have experienced severe negative effects from the protest movement. On the other hand, precisely because Hong Kong’s representative politics and institutional channels have been shelved, many civil society organizations (especially professional groups) have started using its important role in the international economy to demand that the international community take a greater interest in what is now happening to Hong Kong. That explains why many Hong Kong professional groups are demanding that the US Congress pass the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act” and to reassess Hong Kong’s status as a separate customs territory. As such, Hong Kong’s “market” is actually playing a key role in altering the city’s future political development.

 

Litmus Test for the Free World


Finally, what are the implications of Hong Kong’s current social movement for the rest of the world? Admittedly, we here in Hong Kong are facing a situation where China is increasingly powerful politically and economically, and a set of universal values widely held in the West (such as freedom, democracy and human rights) are under threat. In the 1980s, many China observers in Hong Kong and in the West naively thought that with China opening up its economy, the country ultimately would join the league of democratic countries. However, such a fantasy of Chinese modernization seems increasingly impossible (if not totally bankrupted) today.

 

Over the past few years, Chinese President Xi Jinping has tightened the Communist Party’s ideological control, repressed civil society and arrested many human rights activists. At the same time, China has also increasingly used advanced technology to put its citizens under strict surveillance. All these demonstrate China is heading in a more authoritarian, if not totalitarian, direction.

 

To the parts of the world where democracy and freedom are still greatly treasured and exercised, Hong Kong is a litmus test for the free world. Should the current city-wide movement in Hong Kong fail and should Hong Kong become another Xinjiang or just another Chinese city, the world will not simply lose one of its great, cosmopolitan urban centers. It will lose a city that has a strong tradition of upholding and aspiring to freedom. If that were to happen, another “clash of civilizations” would ensue between East and West. Sadly, it is the people of Hong Kong who will have paid the highest price.

 

Back to Issue
    Hong Kong, ‘Asia’s World City,’ is in the grip of its worst political crisis since the British handover to China in 1997. Violent street demonstrations have wracked the city for three months running, with no signs of abating. Protesters, fearful of Beijing’s growing influence over the city, are demanding greater freedom and more accountability for the local government and police. There are worries Beijing could even intervene directly to end the protests. The roots of the crisis go back decades and the situation now is a test of the world’s commitment to supporting the aspirations of Hong Kong’s people, Kaxton Siu writes.
    Published: Sep 26, 2019
    About the author

    Kaxton Siu is Assistant Professor in the Department of Applied Social Sciences, Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

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