“I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. . . . It will become all one thing or all the other.” Abraham Lincoln.
Since the transfer of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, there has been more than ample reason for skepticism about Hong Kong’s political future. Anyone who understood the nature of communist rule in the People’s Republic of China had to wonder how it could possibly tolerate real autonomy for Hong Kong under “one country, two systems.” Still harder to imagine was a pathway from the semi-democratic, rule-of-law system under British rule to genuine democracy. Yet Hong Kongers longed for at least the measure of self-determination that would come from being able to democratically elect their parliament (the Legislative Council, or LegCo) and their Chief Executive—even if those authorities still had to function within a communist country.
A major blow to democratic aspirations came in 2004, when the PRC’s National People’s Congress (NPC) resolved that Hong Kong was “not yet ready” to move beyond the rules that enabled Beijing to dominate the LegCo (by having half the seats chosen indirectly, through “functional” constituencies) and to choose (in effect) Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. Instead, China’s communist rulers kicked the can well down the road past the 2007 Chief Executive selection and the 2008 LegCo election, setting 2017 and 2020 respectively as the “earliest dates” by which universal suffrage could be achieved.
What passes for a Hong Kong constitution is called the Basic Law, adopted by the NPC in 1990 after a drafting process dominated by the Beijing authorities. In the final decades of the twentieth century, the people of Hong Kong were twice denied the right to determine their own future—first with Britain’s negotiation of the 1984 Sino-British Declaration, transferring sovereignty over Hong Kong to the PRC in 1997, and second with a constitutional document that was in the end more imposed than negotiated, much less ratified by popular vote. Yet pro-democratic forces could console themselves with some important facts. For half a century after the 1997 handover, Hong Kong’s autonomy was in theory to be guaranteed under the principle of “one country, two systems.” And the Basic Law declared universal suffrage to be the “ultimate aim” for electing both the chief executive and all the members of the LegCo (though the process for nominating chief executive candidates was left worrisomely vague).
When would the “ultimate aim” of democratic, universal suffrage be realized? Surely it would have to be well before 2047, after which Beijing no longer promised to preserve Hong Kong’s “way of life.” Hopefully but warily, Hong Kong democrats bet that if fully democratic elections could be introduced before 2047, it would be hard to terminate them after (or that by 2047 what would have been terminated would be communist rule in China). And they took heart in a provision affirming “the principle of gradual and orderly progress” for determining the methods of election, and by implication, the transition to democracy.
The NPC’s 2004 decision was a hard slap in the face to Hong Kong’s democrats. By then, Hong Kong was much richer and better educated than most societies that had made transitions to democracy. Moreover, it had one of the most effective and least corrupt government bureaucracies in the world, and a long tradition of press freedom, academic autonomy, judicial independence, and rule of law. If Hong Kong was not “ready for democracy” in 2004, when would it be?
By then it was clear to many observers that China’s Communist Party rulers would never allow Hong Kong to become a democracy, for a very simple reason: fear of success. Success is contagious. If Hong Kong showed that not only could a Chinese society outside the PRC (Taiwan) make democracy work, but even a part of the PRC could do so, then “one country, two systems” might face an existential threat in reverse: The people of mainland China might clamor for the democracy that was flowering in Hong Kong. Still, Hong Kongers could dream that a reformist faction might win power in Beijing and permit Hong Kong to “gradually progress” to democracy as a testing ground for political reform in the mainland itself. Or maybe communist rule would suddenly break down in China as it did in the Soviet Union, liberating Hong Kong to implement democracy. By these calculations, waiting for political reform in 2017 and 2020 seemed a wiser choice than trying to bring down the house in 2004.
Hong Kong’s democrats were buoyed then by other factors as well. While democracy was deferred, the city remained a remarkably free and open society, what Richard Bush has called “a liberal oligarchy.” And just the year before, in 2003, Hong Kong’s vibrant civil society had brought half a million people into the streets to beat back a government effort (prodded by Beijing) to pass a draconian national security law in the LegCo. That bill would have harshly implemented the Basic Law’s infamous Article 23, calling on Hong Kong to “enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, [or] subversion against the Central People’s Government.” The outpouring of popular revulsion against the ominous, sweeping language of this provision made any effort to revisit the issue politically unthinkable—in Hong Kong.
What triggered the second eruption of mass protest—the 2014 Umbrella Movement—was the dashing once again of widespread hopes for democratic change. That unprecedented campaign of civil disobedience began after the NPC Standing Committee announced a unilateral decision at the end of August freezing the system of election to the LegCo and barring democratic election of the chief executive as well. For more than ten weeks, students, scholars, professionals, and opposition party members occupied Hong Kong’s public spaces and arteries “With Love and Peace.” The mass protests failed to reverse Beijing’s veto of democratic reform. But they elevated to fame many student leaders (such as Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow—all of whom were prosecuted and given prison sentences). And they radicalized much of the youth opposition in particular, fanning support for “localism” if not outright independence from Beijing, and thus deepening Hong Kong’s already acute political polarization.
This brings us now to the third chapter in Hong Kong’s recent history of democratic struggle, and the most perilous moment for its freedom. Once more in 2019—and again under pressure from Beijing—Hong Kong’s government pushed for legislation that would eclipse civil liberties and rule of law. This time the vehicle was a bill that would have enabled Beijing to obtain the extradition from Hong Kong of anyone it claimed was in violation of its laws—putting Hong Kong’s democrats at risk of facing the tender mercies of Communist Party justice, on mainland Chinese soil. The proposed bill brought hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents into the streets beginning in June last year. Government intransigence and police overreaction then escalated the conflict, with protestors demanding not only withdrawal of the extradition bill (which Chief Executive Carrie Lam was forced to concede) but also an investigation of police brutality and the long-cherished universal suffrage elections for legislature and executive. Once again, as in 2014, Hong Kong was paralyzed by weeks of mass protests, now mushrooming and leaderless.
In a column here in August, I worried that Beijing was about to launch a massive crackdown on the protestors. Establishment forces had already been escalating their overt (police) and covert (mafia gang) violence against peaceful demonstrators. Yet threats, arrests, and coercion did not seem to be quelling the protests, which were becoming ever more defiant, at one point occupying the LegCo chambers.
China’s communist leaders did not march in troops. Instead, they settled on a shrewder approach, opting to let the protestors exhaust themselves while gradually escalating selective repression: arrests and prosecutions, vigilante violence, disinformation, cyber attacks and cyber bullying. As often happens in protracted conflict, a small portion of the protest movement turned in frustration to their own tactics of violence, vandalism, and incivility. Lately the authorities have taken bolder steps to tighten the noose on protest. Last month, they arrested 15 of the movement’s most prominent democrats, including student leader Joshua Wong, publisher Jimmy Lai, trade unionist and politician Lee Cheuk-yan, and such other stalwart political leaders as Martin Lee, Albert Ho, and Margaret Ng. As Martin Lee noted soon after, “had the extradition bill been passed, we could have faced trial already in China instead of Hong Kong.”
But that could sill lie in their future. For some time now, freedom has been under assault in Hong Kong. Over the last five years, its annual total score on Freedom House’s 100-point scale of political rights and civil liberties has declined from 63 to 55. The entire change has owed to a sharp decline on Hong Kong’s civil liberties score, which includes the rule of law.
Tired of waiting for the leadership it chose for Hong Kong to crush the protests and deliver the national security law they have pressed for since 2003, China’s Communist Party bosses have now vowed to impose their will directly on Hong Kong. Last Thursday the National People’s Congress announced it would enact the national security bill that could not pass Hong Kong’s LegCo in 2003, would not pass it today, and will not be submitted to it for approval. PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared that the NPC would proceed to draft detailed legislation to implement Article 23 and silence anti-government protests as soon as the body rubber-stamps the leadership’s decision when it meets this week. Ominously, the new bill will not only ban “subversion of state power” and “foreign interference”—terms expansive enough to include just about anything the CCP wants to punish—it will also allow the PRC to establish its own “national security agencies” inside the city. These figure to be direct instruments of PRC repression.
The details of the bill are still to be filled in, and Wang has issued the ritualistic guarantee of a narrow scope that will not “impact on Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents.” But Communist Party assurances of freedom are hardly worth the breath it takes to utter them. Predictably, Hong Kong greeted Thursday’s announcement with a new round of street protests, which the police met with a new round of truncheons, tear gas, and water cannons.
If Beijing now appears set on crossing the Rubicon to decimate Hong Kong’s autonomy, it must be made to pay a heavy price for doing so. The people of Hong Kong need strong moral, geopolitical, and material support from the United States and other established democracies. Should Beijing proceed with its announced plan, the Secretary of State must report, under the terms of the 1992 U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act, that Hong Kong is no longer “sufficiently autonomous” to justify its special status with respect to trade and access to technology. Under the terms of the 2019 Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, the United States should identify the specific individuals—both in Beijing and in Hong Kong—responsible for trampling on the rights and autonomy of the Hong Kong people, and impose targeted sanctions, blocking their assets in the United States and revoking or denying visas for them and their family members. It is important that we lobby our democratic allies—including Britain, Canada, and Australia—to join us in these measures. Revoking Hong Kong’s special trade privileges is a tougher step, since it will hurt the city’s people, but we must gradually make clear to the city’s business and financial elite that they will pay a high price for falling in line with Beijing’s commands.
Beyond this, Hong Kong’s brave democrats need help. As these new national security measures take effect, democratic leaders in the city will be at grave risk. They need steadfast moral and diplomatic support from democracies and democrats worldwide. We should also do much more to help Hong Kong’s independent media and civil society organizations, including new digital media and advocacy efforts that may now need (as in other autocracies) to base themselves partly abroad to evade repression. And we should grant a special immigrant visa to anyone in Hong Kong who is at risk of repression.
Throughout what will now be a long twilight struggle for freedom in Hong Kong, we must make clear that we do not endorse Hong Kong separatism and are not trying to “break up” China. Rather, we are simply asking the PRC’s leaders to respect their own legal and treaty commitments, under the Basic Law and the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. If they refuse, how can they expect the people of Taiwan to ever see “one country, two systems” as anything but a cynical ruse? And how can they expect the rest of the world to view Xi Jinping’s bid to “lead the reform of the global governance system” as anything but a quest to tear down the rule of law globally with the same relentless resolve with which China’s leaders are dismantling freedom and the rule of law in Hong Kong?