The Chinese Python Reaches for Hong Kong

The extent to which China has Hong Kong by the throat was demonstrated last week when 27-year-old Edward Leung, a pro-independence activist, was sentenced to six years in prison for “damaging social stability” by helping to lead 79 days of demonstrations seeking independence for the territory two years ago.

Leung’s sentencing put him behind bars with three other prominent members of what became known as the “Umbrella Movement.” Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow were also sentenced last year to several months in jail for their part in the demonstrations. The sentences are among the most severe punishments ever meted out for breaking the territory’s public order laws. The three were originally sentenced to community service by a trial court. But the territory’s justice secretary, Teresa Chung, appealed and the lenient sentences were overturned and replaced with jail time, bringing thousands to the streets last August to allege the pressure from China, and political meddling in Hong Kong’s judiciary, had resulted in the reversals.

The jailing of the Umbrella leaders is hardly the only action China has taken to intimidate what had been one of Asia’s most freewheeling cities politically, with a free press and a lively opposition. Two democratically elected lawmakers were denied their seats in the Legislative Council on a subterfuge. The National People's Congress and increasingly timid Hong Kong authorities challenged the election of another four political activists.

Beijing has blocked Hong Kong University’s selection of its nominated provost because of his leanings toward the Umbrella movement. It has engineered the arrest of four publishers printing books critical of China. It has attempted to crush the phenomenally popular Apple Daily, published by democratic activist Jimmy Lai. It has interfered in a long list of court decisions on the right of abode and other issues. Most importantly it has gone back on its promise to allow universal suffrage. The relatively independent South China Morning Post, arguably Asia’s most influential English-language daily, was taken over by Jack, Ma, the Beijing-friendly tycoon who heads the phenomenally successful Alibaba Group. Ma has publicly said he believes Beijing deserves a friendlier press.

In its most elemental sense, Hong Kong is beset by the growing domination of Xi Jinping, China’s leader, who in effect last year declared himself president for life. Last July, Xi came to the city to mark the 20th anniversary of Britain’s decision to cede Hong Kong back to China – under an agreement that would allow the city to retain its autonomy for 50 years – and made it plain there was not going to be any toleration for dissent or independence.

Hong Kong, with its continuing demonstrations, a relatively free press and nominally one of the freest economies on earth – although it is dominated by cartels – is a thorn in China’s side. The Umbrella movement, which began in September of 2014, was an attempt through popular pressure to force Beijing to grant universal suffrage in the 2017 polls to pick a chief executive to head the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s legislature, which since 1997 has been charitably called a “semi-democracy.”

That movement failed. Retribution has been significant.

Hong Kong regards itself as important, and essential to the practice of commerce in Asia. It is – unlike China itself – an observer of the sanctity of contract and the rule of law. Its legal system is vital to the multinationals that do trillions of dollars of business in Asia.

Conversely, China regards the territory as an irritant and little more. In a country of 1.38 billion people, with dynamic cities like Shanghai and Beijing, Hong Kong, less than patriotic, is a city of 5.9 million that, as someone put it, is starting to be regarded as just another city in the Pearl River Delta. Shanghai is starting to resume its place as China’s financial center.

None of this has mollified Hong Kong’s residents. A demand by the National People's Congress Standing Committee that the city legislate to make "disrespect" of China's flag or national anthem a criminal offense has been met with outrage. Police find it necessary to bring hordes of uniformed officers to sporting events where crowds boo the Chinese national anthem, shout insults and wave banners denouncing China. The measure provides for a prison term up to three years imprisonment,a threat that Hong Kong's citizens have ignored.

With Leung’s sentencing, crowds took to the streets in Mongkok, the densely populated center of Kowloon, to protest, with more than 100 people injured in clashes with police. Observers say the ruling could trigger a backlash against the courts and government authorities for buckling under to Beijing.

But buckling under is probably going to be the order of the day. In some respects, Hong Kong resembles the woman on Muna Island in south Sulawesi in central Indonesia who last week went out to check her corn patch and encountered a python. All the villagers found when they went looking for her were her sandals and a flashlight.