Tensions have mounted in Hong Kong in advance of legislative elections on September 4. The Hong Kong electoral authority disqualified several candidates for their pro-independence views. Also, a Hong Kong official, Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, has called for schools to look into the “family backgrounds” of students interested in independence and find out why “they think like that.” Law’s remarks which recall the communist persecution of those with “bad class backgrounds.” are a sign of the ways China’s political culture is affecting Hong Kong. Regardless of what happens in Sunday’s elections, freedom of speech is under assault, at just the time Hong Kong’s people must be able to discuss freely the challenges ahead.
Beijing has used ideological litmus tests in Hong Kong before. In August 2014, the Chinese government announced it would screen candidates for the chief executive post for loyalty to China, which is code for loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In response, student-led protests paralyzed the city’s downtown area for ten weeks in what was dubbed the Umbrella movement. Some participants in those protests who have turned to electoral politics were targeted by an extraneous, last minute, loyalty pledge. In addition to the usual promise to uphold the Chinese-drafted mini-constitution, candidates were required to agree not to seek amendment of Chinese government’s “basic” policies for Hong Kong.
This innocuous-sounding language reflects Beijing’s recognition of an important shift in Hong Kong politics brought about by the young veterans of the Umbrella movement protests.. To a far greater degree than their elders, the younger generation question the current system set out by Beijing. The agreement returning Hong Kong to Chinese communist rule, signed in 1984, was reached over the heads of their parents and grandparents. Many are too young to remember the June 4, 1989 massacre of democracy protesters on the mainland, which launched the Hong Kong democracy movement. These newer generations grew up believing in the promise of democracy as the “ultimate aim” for Hong Kong, as spelled out in the Joint Declaration. Their identity is tied to their life-long experience of the rule of law, freedom of expression, and limited democracy. They quite rightly believe they should be able to change the laws that govern Hong Kong, even, or especially those imposed by Beijing.
Beijing has faced a similar phenomenon in Taiwan, for which it originally dreamt up the “one country, two systems” concept. When President Carter broke U.S. diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979 , Beijing believed it could be induced, with a promise of autonomy, to come under communist rule. Instead, the U.S. Congress passed legislation establishing a defense commitment to Taiwan and substantive if unofficial relations. Instead of growing closer to Beijing, as Taiwan democratized its people formed a stronger Taiwanese identity rooted in their political freedoms. Recognizing this, President Clinton added a new condition to U.S. policy: Any merger of the island democracy with the mainland should have the consent of people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Hong Kong lacks such clarity about the value the United States places on its democracy, (not to mention a 110-mile stretch of water).
Beijing has no desire to face the same situation in Hong Kong. There it has already made the idea of independence for Taiwan a sensitive issue. In 2001, only one pro-democracy legislator voted against a motion by pro-China politicians opposing Taiwan’s independence. Despite her personally favoring Taiwan’s merger with a democratic China, Margaret Ng voted no, rejecting what she called “the old mainland Communist culture of biao tai [expressing the right attitude]. . . [in which] we have to outdo each other in exhibiting our loyalty or ‘patriotism’ for fear that insufficient enthusiasm will be branded as treachery.”
This is not to say that the situation in Hong Kong is nearly as extreme as the mainland’s where virtually all discussion of Taiwan, or Tibet or Xinjiang is taboo. Ilham Tohti, an intellectual, critical of communist policies toward the Muslim Uighurs, is serving a life sentence in prison for “separatism,” even though he opposes it. Among Chinese who have criticized government policies on Tibet after widespread protests in 2008, at least one is in exile and another, Xu Zhiyong, is serving a four-year jail sentence for “causing disturbances.” Tibetans face intense persecution as “splittists” when asserting human and religious rights.
Hong Kong has also become a sensitive issue on the mainland. In April, mainland activists who raised a banner supporting “freedom” for Hong Kong were jailed for four and a half years.
The new generation of Hong Kong democrats want to talk about an uncomfortable truth. Not only are the guarantees for Hong Kong’s autonomy not working, they are going to expire. The Chinese government’s promises about Hong Kong only last until 2047. Talk about the future must therefore be encouraged and respected, not branded as politically suspect or worse. One of the new political parties seeks a city-wide referendum on its future, considering a range of options. Yet one its candidates for a legislative seat had his election brochures placed under review simply for including the terms “civic referendum” and “self-determination.”
After 19 years, the U.S. government should listen to what Hong Kong’s new generation of democrats has to say about their future. The Obama Administration can start by rejecting Beijing’s effort to shut down political discourse including discussion of independence and self-determination. The incoming U.S. Congress should update the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act, which was passed in 1992, well before the handover, to fit today’s circumstances. That must include penalties for China’s violations of Hong Kong’s autonomy, especially the introduction of mainland-style taboos.