Hong Kong's Democracy in Eclipse

Commentary article by Scott N. Romaniuk

Scott N. Romaniuk - 20 June 2019

The opinions expressed by authors in these commentaries do not necessarily represent the views of the China Institute or the University of Alberta.

The Hong Kong protest that began in Victoria Square on Sunday, June 9, has seen hundreds of thousands of people throng the streets in protest of Beijing's attempt to implement extradition legislation and thereby increase its influence over the special administrative region (SAR) of China. The escalating protests have been likened to the 2014 "Umbrella Movement" - the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests - that brought tens of thousands of protestors out to several city points for 79 days.

Hong Kong has been part of the People's Republic of China (PRC) under Deng Xiaoping's national unification policy in the 1980s called "one country, two systems" for over two decades. The city's return to China was a controversial turn of events in its long colonial history. During British control too, Hong Kong experienced its "dark" moments, the colony itself a product of illegal occupation that came from the wrestling of Chinese territory in order to maintain the opium trade and ensure a flow of coin to the British. The old masters never allowed their colonial subjects to vote or take part in fully-free elections. China has without question influenced post-handover Hong Kong, but one may reasonably contend that this should not come as a shock, nor should it necessarily be objectionable given that today China is the sovereign authority, merely governing a legal part of its own nation.

When the sovereignty of one of the world's most significant financial centers, was transferred to China July 1, 1997, provisions within the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on the question of Hong Kong held that China could and would not interfere in the SAR's autonomy. Hong Kong's social and economic systems would also remain unaltered for a period of 50 years.

In the lead-up to Hong Kong reverting to full Chinese sovereignty, observers were concerned that the Communist Party of China (CPC) would not adhere to the terms of the agreement; and would, in turn, fail in preserving the rights and freedoms Hong Kong and its people. The controversial extradition bill pursued by pro-Beijing Hong Kong officials, stems from Hong Kong resident Chan Tong-kai's murder of his pregnant girlfriend Poon Hiu-wing during a Valentine's Day trip to Taiwan. The bill that would allow extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China has been rendered as an attack on the independent legal system of the SAR, and has germinated an unprecedented turnout of protesters that confirms earlier suspicion and fear about Beijing's intentions after the reacquisition of Hong Kong.

Critics point to the CPC's support of the extradition bill and changes to the independent legal system as authoritarian overreach. In effect, a person who is found guilty of a crime that took places year or decades ago could be tried and convicted in mainland China. Critics also contend that changes to the legal system could serve as instruments of the CPC for the suppression of political opposition, criticism, and dissent. Against the backdrop of calls for Hong Kong's chief executive, Carrie Lam, to resign over the proposed bill, which has since been suspended, Hong Kong citizens are calling for the bill to be scrapped entirely. Many oppose accusations by the Hong Kong government that student protestors from the previous week were engaged in rioting, which is punishable by a prison sentences of up to 10 years.

It is useful to maintain a sense of legal responsibilities in this case, for Beijing and for observers, including advocacy groups/networks, and foreign governments. By and large, the protests represent a legal issue. Protestors in Western countries can be subject to legal repercussions that include jail time and fines if they are shown to be complicit in the damage or destruction of private and public property or cause bodily harm to others, particularly law enforcement personnel. In a sense, Beijing has put the rule of law, as a direct response to the protests, at a relatively high level and through proportional means - a verity that should garner some degree of respect by foreign governments of sovereign states, irrespective of their democratic character.

Beijing's response underscores the need to be mindful of these sensitivities and for states that pride themselves on being "rule of law" countries to tread lightly when it comes to accusing another state of misconduct with upholding the rule of law in the face of mass protest that lead to violence. This might be especially fitting for Canada and the Meng Wanzhou case.

Ms Lam's move to implement the extradition policy sparked major protest that she initially sought to temper through a "soft" approach, even extending a chord of appreciation for having taken the time and for having shown concern over the bill. Police responded to intensifying protests by opening fire on the crowds of people, subjecting them to the agony of tear gas and rubber bullets. The attacks against protestors left dozens of people wounded. She then criticized protestors for their actions and disposition towards the government. However, police action and the authorities' response to protestors stands as a separate issue, as no proof reveals that senior lawmakers sanctioned the use of violence against protestors.

The question of appropriate and proportional response surfaces here in light of the material and immaterial damage caused by rioting and the potential for escalation in the absence of authority intervention. Crowds of people damaged public property, and even injured police officers. Police forces have responded in similar fashion when facing violent protests in North America and Europe. In 2012, Montréal riot police released volleys of tear gas on student protestors protesting tuition-fee hikes. During the 2017 G20 Hamburg summit, rallies led to violent clashes with police, resulting in a curtain of tear gas released and people blasted by water cannons. Riot police implemented further forceful crowd control measures to contain erupting violence.

Ms Lam's response, notably the use of eventual turn to crowd control tactics, is indicative of her support for the CPC government. The official response possibly sets the tone for future engagement and treatment of Hong Kong citizens and their social system, particularly when citizens display public criticism toward policy they deem unjust and in contradiction to the provisions laid-out in the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Nonetheless, there is a degree of legitimacy concerning Ms Lam's conduct that deserves attention. If Ms Lam failed to adhere to the party line in China, she would be replaced. The same course of action would be undertaken in Canada and other Western-democratic societies. Canadians have witnessed this script playout in Canadian parliament time immemorial. When a politician departs from the political trajectory of the party, the party's response can be swift and decisive, either attempting to bring them back in-line with the party or they're ejected, among other courses of action.

The new face of the latest Hong Kong protests indicates a fundamental shift that has taken place on both sides. For the general public that maintains crisp images of the "Umbrella Movement", which stood in opposition to electoral reform, the people constitute the first line of defense against the erosion of liberal values evident in Hong Kong. For Beijing, which fervidly defends territorial claims beyond China's official borders, consolidating power and control is commonplace and has shown signs of intensifying over recent years.

Although Ms Lam later announced that she would temporarily suspended the extradition law that sparked outrage among Hong Kong citizens, she publicly apologized while simultaneously declaring that she would stand her ground. Her replacement, should she step down, is unlikely to bring about any respite and temper the suspicion or fears among protestors. Beijing will continue to extend its influence or govern and would make the ultimate decision regarding her replacement.

Described as a necessary step in preventing Hong Kong from becoming a haven for criminals and a necessity in "plug[ing] the loopholes" in Hong Kong's defective justice system, the response to the protests have been linked to broader and systematic effort to tighten the security state, and grant Beijing broader and deeper powers to pursue political opponents as well as perceived enemies of the PRC. It would be misleading to view the CPC's effort to adjust the legal system as a means of improving existing measures to address the sort of criminal activity that Westerners imagine.

The PRC has always considered Hong Kong and adjacent territory to be not only an area of strategic importance but also as a zone of vital interest with ideological dimensions. In his anniversary of the establishment of the HKSAR speech, President Jiang Zemin referred to "Hong Kong's return to the motherland" as a "major event that is forever worth commemorating", presaging further absorption, including, what Zemin called, "the final settlement of the Taiwan question".

The CPC's erosion of Hong Kong's democratic character as well as its response to the "Umbrella Movement" and the current Hong Kong protests essentialize Beijing's fixed position toward the systems of Hong Kong, and even those of Taiwan. No one can sure about Beijing's plans for Hong Kong after the "one country, two systems" principle expires in 2047 and the CPC may not be willing to wait until that time to begin making changes to what it considers to be its entity. Taiwan has stalwartly opposed the idea of such a system for itself and vehemently rejects any notion of "reunification" with mainland China, which Beijing described as inevitable.

These past events, though, advance strong evidence that Beijing's promises toward the preservation of rights within the reabsorbed territories are tenuous, and that China's "despotic Communist regime", in the words of Hong Kong's former director of home affairs, John Walden, remains fixed on achieving absolute control. Still, even though China's bill and response to the protests has been framed as deplorable political conduct, some contend that Hong Kong remains a part of sovereign China - "one party, two systems".

Recognition of the events as an internal legal issue in which any country has the legal authority and right to amend can serve as confidence-building practice, and an investment in the prohibitive norm of not infringing upon another nation's sovereign domain. While acting contrary to this would constitute direct interference in the politics of another nation and possibly set an unsettling precedent for the international community of states, nations like Canada that are committed to the preservation of free and open societies, liberal norms, and international law, are pressing for China to adhere to the rules of the game.

To be sure, the issue is not merely one of internal politics, nor is it one of "purely China's internal affairs", as the Chinese Embassy in Canada communicated. Rather, the United Nations (UN)-registered Sino-British Joint Declaration, as blueprint for post-British governance of Hong Kong, is as much a legally-binding bilateral treaty today as it was roughly 30 years ago, even in spite of the CPC's 2017 declaration that the agreement no longer carried any practical significance.

Scott N. Romaniuk is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the China Institute.