With the rest of the world paralyzed and preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic that broke out in the Chinese metropolis of Wuhan last December, Beijing has set in motion a series of arbitrary and rapid-fire manoeuvres in Hong Kong that has thrown the leadership of the democratic movement in the semi-autonomous city into disarray and despair.
“It is feeling very, very much like a lost cause now,” Catrina Ko, a prominent activist in the youthful pro-democracy uprising that erupted last summer, told me today. “The enemy is advancing. We are losing. We are losing at a rate that the international community is not keeping up with as a counterforce. It’s like we have nothing to fight back with. And it’s going to keep getting worse.”
Over the weekend, the Hong Kong police rounded up some of the most senior figures among Hong Kong’s democrats. Among the 15 leaders arrested was Martin Lee, the 81-year-old founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party and co-author of Hong Kong’s “Basic Law” mini-constitution, which sets out the “one country, two systems” arrangement that was put in place after Britain handed Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China in 1997.
It is feeling very, very much like a lost cause nowActivist Catrina Ko
Also arrested were Jimmy Lai, the 71-year-old news media magnate and publisher of Apple Daily; Margaret Ng, 72, the former long-serving legislative council member and newspaper columnist; Albert Ho, the 68-year-old civil rights lawyer and head of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China; and former legislator Lee Cheuk Yan, the 63-year-old general secretary of the independent Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.
Not so widely noticed was a move Beijing made Friday night that has even more severe implications for Hong Kong’s future as the only Chinese city where democratic norms and the rule of law have at least a marginal foothold. In the hours before the veterans of Hong Kong’s civil society were being arrested on charges related to “unauthorized” protests last August and September — the larger August protest drew 1.7 million Hong Kongers into the streets — Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong declared that it was above the law — it was not bound by the Basic Law provisions forbidding Beijing’s direct interference in Hong Kong’s internal affairs.
The Chinese government now intends to assume a “supervisory” role over Hong Kong, and Washington’s bipartisan condemnations of Saturday’s arrests amount to a “political conspiracy” and a “reckless trampling of human rights and rule of law in Hong Kong,” Beijing declared. The repudiation of the Basic Law followed liaison office chief Luo Huining’s order that a long dormant “national security” statute, withdrawn in 2003 after massive protests broke out in opposition to it, must now be revived and adopted by Hong Kong’s legislative council.
A particularly chilling indication of just how far the central government intends to take its rejection of the “one country, two systems” principle came in a broadside Beijing launched against legislator Dennis Kwok. The Chinese Communist Party accuses Kwok of having violated his oath of allegiance and engaged in “misconduct in public office” by delaying legislative council proceedings on the “National Anthem” law. The new law would impose harsh penalties on anyone mocking or disrespecting the March of the Volunteers, the Communist Party’s national anthem.
Ten elected Hong Kong lawmakers were disqualified and deposed following the 2016 legislative council elections on the grounds that they had violated their oaths by refusing to properly swear allegiance to Beijing. The attack on Kwok is seen as a threat to dissuade potential pro-democracy candidates from putting forward their names in this coming November’s legislative council elections.
While the older generation democrats like Martin Lee and Albert Ho can now count themselves among the nearly 8,000 Hong Kongers arrested since last summer’s overwhelmingly non-violent uprising began, the younger generation of activists is becoming increasingly suspicious of the conventional methods that Hong Kong’s reformists have counselled. The pro-democracy movement that sprang up last year sees no future within China’s orbit, Catrina Ko told me, and Chinese supreme leader Xi Jinping has given every indication that he is uninterested in waiting until 2047, when the Sino-British handover terms expire, to swallow Hong Kong whole.
Xi Jinping has given every indication that he is uninterested in waiting until 2047 … to swallow Hong Kong whole
Hong Kong’s older-generation democrats have failed, she said. “We in the pro-democratic people, within the space of nine months, we’ve pushed the space against Beijing further than they have in 20 years.” It is becoming increasingly clear that nothing short of all-out resistance to Beijing, and independence from Beijing, is the only solution, Ko said. But that solution looks increasingly unlikely, too, as the months and years pass.
“There are a hundred reasons under the sun, all the reasons under the sun, that Hong Kongers want to break free, because look at what we’re suffering. So long as there is any hint or trace of Beijing rule in Hong Kong, we will always, always be fighting. We will always, always be struggling with our flesh and blood, with our lives. There are a hundred reasons why we want to break free.
“But where the conflict comes in is that Hong Kongers can’t fight alone. We don’t stand a chance against Beijing when we’re fighting alone. We stand half a chance against Beijing when we have the international support that we really do need, but the international community isn’t able to echo what Hong Kongers truly want in their hearts.”
The United Kingdom has betrayed Hong Kongers, Ko said. The United States is at least standing by with the threat of economic sanctions if Beijing insists on devouring Hong Kong. There is a role for middle powers like Canada — sanctioning individual human rights abusers, fighting back against Beijing’s infiltration in Canada itself, and pushing at the UN for international inquiries into the vast abuse of police powers in Hong Kong. But there’s mostly silence.
Natalie Hui, a core member of the Canadian Friends of Hong Kong organization, says that of all the responses to Saturday’s arrests that were issued by the world’s democracies, Canada’s — Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne called for dialogue and restraint on “all sides” — was almost uniquely anodyne and weak.
Canada’s response ‘was beyond weak’Natalie Hui of Canadian Friends of Hong Kong
“To say the very least, is was quite a disappointment. Not a surprise, but quite a disappointment,” Hui told me. “It was really beyond weak. The Canadian government couldn’t even bring itself to utter the word ‘condemn.’ I am torn — would it have been better to not even have a statement? I don’t know. It was such a joke.”
Meanwhile, in further testimony to Ottawa’s weakness in its dealings with Beijing, this week marks a gruesome milestone. Wednesday is the 500th day since the Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were kidnapped and imprisoned by Chinese authorities. The two Michaels were locked up in retaliation for the detention of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver, on a U.S. Justice Department extradition warrant, arising from bank fraud charges related to Huawei’s alleged sanctions evasions in Iran.