Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 on the premise of the “one country, two systems” framework. However, there is growing frustration in the former British colony as that policy inexorably heads towards “one country, one system”.
Significantly, the Hong Kong government has been leveraging the legal system, one of the last bastions of independence to succumb to Beijing, to prosecute those who have opposed either Beijing’s or the government’s purposes.
Former chief executive Leung Chun-Ying and the current Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen have vigorously pursued prosecutions against pro-democracy figures. Three were recently jailed for their role in the 79-day umbrella movement of 2014. Alex Chow, Nathan Law and Joshua Wong were given six-to-eight-month sentences in August for their roles in the anti-government occupation.
Regarding the above, Mabel Au, Amnesty International’s director in Hong Kong, said, “The relentless and vindictive pursuit of student leaders using vague charges smacks of political payback by the authorities.”
The latest casualty was lawmaker Cheng Chung-tai of the pro-democracy Civic Passion party. He was found guilty of “desecrating” the Chinese and Hong Kong flags and was slapped with a 5,000 Hong Kong dollar fine. In what was little more than a prank, Cheng had moved around the Legislative Council chamber last year turning 18 pairs of miniature flags upside down.
Under Hong Kong law, five kinds of flag desecration are listed: burning, mutilating, scrawling on, defiling or trampling. None of these describes Cheng’s actions, and he described the conviction as “ridiculous”. He complained, “I believe today's judgment reminds us Hongkongers that Hong Kong society is not an open, democratic and liberal one. We have always been facing an autocratic government.”
Indeed, this is the problem gnawing upon many Hong Kong citizens, a growing awareness of the authoritative reach of Beijing, as well as of the cloying willingness of the Hong Kong government to do the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) bidding.
Of course, there has been no overt action such as sending the Hong Kong Garrison of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) onto the city’s streets, even though it was prepared for such an eventuality at the height of the Occupy Central movement in 2014.
Instead of overt action, there has been a gradual erosion of the values and rights of people to express themselves. Any notion of autonomy under “one country, two systems” has been shown to be a pipe dream as Beijing has removed its velvet glove and allowed glimpses of its iron fist.
Most often it is subtle encroachments into treasured freedoms that are slowly but inexorably turning Hong Kong’s atmosphere into a toxic one. More and more, the Chinese way of doing business, of governance, of shaming opponents, of propaganda, of overcoming any dissent is taking hold in the territory.
An annual report issued last week by the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), entitled ‘Two Systems Under Siege’, is very timely as it clearly articulates this growing climate of fear and repression besetting the former British enclave.
In its introduction, the report said, “The past 20 years have seen a regression of freedom of expression in general and press freedom in particular despite the struggle by media workers against the trend.” It offered evidence from Reporters Without Borders, where Hong Kong ranked eighteenth in 2002 in terms of press freedom but by this year had slumped to seventy-third.
The HKJA report said, “There is no doubt that pressure from Beijing is the main reason for the erosion of press freedom. The increased pressure is a reflection of a change in Beijing's Hong Kong policy over the years as tension between two systems ballooned.”
It is obvious that Beijing’s communist leadership has not the experience, wisdom or confidence to allow Hong Kong to operate as a separate second system, so it has increasingly tried to mould Hong Kong into its own authoritarian image.
Thus it was no surprise, despite the alarm it engendered, that the number three in the CPC hierarchy, Zhang Dejiang, decreed in Beijing on 27 May that “one country” was more important than “two systems”. He denounced any discussion about self-determination or independence for Hong Kong, and called for national security legislation to be introduced.
Dejiang trumpeted that the central government had “comprehensive governing power” over Hong Kong, meaning Chinese officials will be free to interpret the Basic Law as they see fit.
The HKJA report continued, “Mr. Zhang also called for a mechanism to exert control over Hong Kong affairs. While some powers sought by Mr. Zhang are stated in the Basic Law, others appear to go beyond its remit. They include powers to assess legislation passed by Hong Kong's Legislative Council, a final say over political development in the territory and supervisory power over public officers’ allegiance to the country.”
The latter is worrying, as it means civil servants will be promoted or rewarded according to their loyalty to China rather than the longstanding political neutrality that has marked the civil service. It is this kind of societal and political pressure that will turn Hong Kong into simply yet another shoe-shining province of China.
This issue of a national security law to outlaw treason, sedition, subversion, secession and the theft of state secrets – Article 23 in Hong Kong’s Basic Law – is going to be problematic and sensitive, yet Dejiang called for its speedy implementation.
Mass protests against an attempted introduction of Article 23 in 2003, when half a million protesters took to the streets, were the first real cause for alarm in Beijing. Then, when Xi Jinping took over China’s presidential reins in 2012 and was confronted with the 2014 pro-democracy movement, he responded in the only way he knows how, a hardline approach.
Another noticeable strategy for China has been ‘The Great Overseas Propaganda Plan’, whereby Chinese interests have taken over media outlets in Hong Kong and abroad. Eight of 26 mainstream media outlets in Hong Kong are under Chinese control or have significant Chinese stakes, namely, Ta Kung Pao, Wen Wei Po, Hong Kong Commercial Daily, China Daily, Sing Pao Daily News, South China Morning Post, Phoenix Satellite Television and TVB. The change in tone and content has been particularly evident in the South China Morning Post, for example, after Jack Ma of Alibaba fame bought the newspaper.
TVB, the dominant free-to-air broadcaster in Hong Kong, was also discovered to be controlled by CPC cadre through undisclosed agreements. Self-censorship has already been evident in the way TVB has covered Taiwan, with Taiwanese flags blurred out in one programme and in another, the “national” flag of Taiwan was described as a “regional” one. By the end of this year, i-Cable will join the list of Chinese-controlled media.
Long Zhenyang, once the assistant editor-in-chief at Hong Kong Commercial Daily, sought political asylum in the United States last year. In an interview with Radio Free Asia, he claimed that all media outlets with Chinese capital were under the “direct management” of Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong. This sometimes entailed the office giving direct orders to newspapers, while the granting of money could also secure political influence.
The HKJA quoted: “Mr. Long said the sociopolitical climate in China had grown more and more like that in the Cultural Revolution and all hope for reform had been extinguished.” In addition, political commentators have been axed from newspaper columns or from radio.
Another disturbing phenomenon is the publicising of “forced confessions”, something straight from the Cultural Revolution era. Examples are the famous cases of five Hong Kong booksellers that disappeared and ended up in detention in China. Several Hong Kong outlets were also selected to cover the forced confession of detained human rights lawyer Wang Yu.
Communism has always known the importance of controlling the media and thus dominating the way people think. This is precisely what occurs in China, but that nefarious web of thought control is now expanding its tentacles in Hong Kong as well. The HKJA explained that China has moved from “indirect influence to direct interference” by securing such controlling stakes in Hong Kong media outlets.
The HKJA report mentioned that “self-censorship is getting worse” too, as Beijing seeks to muzzle dissenting voices. A joint survey by the HKJA and the University of Hong Kong suggested that 30 per cent of journalist respondents are already practising self-censorship. Furthermore, 72 per cent believed press freedom had deteriorated in the past 12 months.
The Basic Law promised a high degree of autonomy to Hong Kong, but the HKJA warned, “The government must be seen to be safeguarding freedom of expression and press freedom in its dealings with Beijing. Failure to do so will lead to the erosion of Hong Kong's rights, loss of confidence in the government and a further polarization within society.”
It is very possible that in the future any expression against the CPC, Communism or leaders may become taboo. The HKJA reported at least two cases in the past year of media organisations facing well-planned harassment such as threatening letters, and two journalists were physically attacked.
A study in nearby Macau, another special administrative region of China, indicated significant concern about press freedom and access to official information there too. The report by the Macau Portuguese and English Press Association revealed “a tougher environment, more challenges, restraints and pressure” for reporters.
Three quarters of 44 Macau journalists surveyed said they had encountered a degree of “political, economic, social, cultural or institutional restraint” while working. They also complained about opacity in the government spokesperson system. The latter should not be a surprise since it simply mirrors what occurs in China.
There have also been strenuous efforts to stir Chinese national and cultural pride in Hong Kong. Many loyalists lament that young pro-democracy advocates are simply misguided and poorly educated. Thus, in May, the CPC’s youth wing said, “[We will] help the youth in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan shape their identity with the culture of the motherland and the correct knowledge of 'one country, two systems’.”
Already there is a tedious cycle of the government or its allies insisting on its correctness, and accusing others of misunderstanding. The solution usually proffered is better education and explanations, which would explain why the Education Bureau attempted to implement national education classes to instil patriotism in 2012.
There is no official chapter of the CPC in Hong Kong, a city that endured violent communist-led riots in the 1960s. Nevertheless, there is likely a party cell in Hong Kong. Whereas the CPC once served the people, now it is master of the people. This has always been the inevitable fruit of Communism, and it is heading the same way in Hong Kong as its leaders are accountable more to Beijing than to the local people.
Many are mourning Hong Kong’s unstoppable slide into complete integration with China and all that which it entails. A former chief executive and former chief secretary are currently in jail for corruption, although their misdemeanours probably pale in comparison with their many counterparts in the CPC.
Hong Kong is a true barometer of Beijing’s control. As political pressure continues to mount – affecting the media, pro-democracy advocates and almost every level of society – the barometer needle is rising.
The sense of fear, of schism, of shaming, of the need to conform is an ugly epidemic. As he marks five years in power, Jinping has shown himself to be a “control freak”, and he has not hesitated to clamp down on Hong Kong in much the same way as he does in China. To some extent, that approach has backfired since many can see through CPC tactics and lies. Nevertheless, the CPC’s influence over the media and education arena continues to grow.
Countries such as Taiwan that are looking on, should be very fearful about falling under China’s spell. Hong Kong society is becoming far more controlled, where patriotism is praised and rewarded, and where ambitions for democracy and vague accusations of foreign meddling are viciously condemned.
Communism is indeed gradually choking Hong Kong. (ANI)
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