Hong Kong’s four-yearly elections for its Legislative Council are just two weeks away, but instead of looking to a future of a more democratic system, citizens are witnessing strong-arm tactics to limit participation. Worse still, freedom of speech, long a cherished bedrock feature of Hong Kong, is under threat from Communist Party-generated authoritarianism dressed up as patriotism.
Assaults on democracy and liberty have been the result of a sharp rise, mainly among the young, in separatist and localist sentiment, in turn driven by the crude efforts of the administration. It has sought to ram One Country thinking down the throats of a community more concerned with maintaining the Two Systems promised to Hong Kong by the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law for Hong Kong promulgated by China.
The government has used administrative measures to disbar several localist candidates. Their legality is dubious but they came too close to the event to be challenged in the courts. They also showed that the civil service was no longer a servant of the citizens but of the Communist party’s representative in Hong Kong, Chief Executive C.Y. Leung.
In addition to the usual nomination form, the Electoral Affairs Commission came up with an additional form with the words: Ï understand that to uphold the Basic Law means to uphold the Basic Law” including certain specific clauses. In principle this was redundant as the nomination form already required that candidates would “uphold the Basic Law and pledge allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.”
Existing pro-democracy legislators and their party candidates all declined to sign this form but they were allowed to stand anyway. But the young newcomers espousing localism or independence were mostly excluded. Even one who did sign was then sold he was not sincere and disbarred by a civil servant clearly acting under orders. In other words, civil servants have been turned into thought police who can judge a person’s inner feelings. This particular would-be candidate had already stood in a by-election and received 15.4 percent of the vote. In a general election in this huge constituency, which elects nine legislators, a repeat of that vote would have seen him easily elected.
Other disbarred localists also had good chances thanks to Hong Kong’s multiseat constituencies, which are helpful to fringe candidates. Ironically, this unusual system was introduced in an effort to thwart the Democratic Party.
Support for independence is more an expression of protest than belief that it is possible in the foreseeable future. Nonetheless the heavy handed, dubiously legal exclusions are unlikely to be any help to the pro-government parties.
Nor is it just aspiring politicians who face being muzzled by official decrees and livelihood pressures. So blatant has the government become in taking orders from Xi Jinping’s jingoist rule that after meeting mainland officials, Education Secretary Eddie Ng announced from Beijing that “students can discuss anything if they are under the guidance of teachers.” This followed earlier remarks that teachers should guide students to proper understanding of the Basic Law – that is, there is no scope for discussion of independence or even enhanced autonomy. One leading Beijing supporter and Basic Law expert went so far as to argue that any organisation or party advocating independence should be outlawed and subject to investigation.
Teachers are in the firing line as they are assumed to have the responsibility to guide students from discussing independence talk other than to condemn it. There are threats to de-register teachers sympathetic to it or simply believing in freedom of speech. CY Leung himself has warned teachers of their responsibility to preach the sanctity of the Basic Law.
“We should have a stance of what is right and what is wrong. Schools have a responsibility to guide students in the right direction.” In other words, this is a matter of faith and CY is the priest of the Inquisition.
The notion that someone would abide by the Basic Law but still want it changed appeared beyond the intellectual grasp of the party loyalists, despite evidence from many countries that civilized debates about and voting on independence issues is possible. Teachers are naturally very anxious but not taking all this lying down. The head of the Professional Teachers Union accused the government of spreading “white terror” with its threats to teachers. The chairman of the Hong Kong Subsidized Secondary Schools Council said it was not the job of teachers to curb discussion or screen what students learn.
This issue now goes well beyond the Hong Kong question. Beijing is leaning on Hong Kong to enact a Basic Law requirement, under Article 23, for a local law on secession and sedition. A previous attempt back in 2003 was thwarted by massive public opposition to a crudely worded bill when as many as half a million people turned out to protest. The matter has since been in abeyance but given the surge in party dogmatism and nationalism it is likely to be revived within the next year. Even without a repeat of the Article 23 controversy, the government is being urged to consider charging advocates under existing ordinances.
This will endanger not merely local advocates of independence, or even simply more autonomy, but any words or actions deemed to support the independence of Taiwan, Tibet or other parts of what Beijing considers its territory – even its outrageous claim to Scarborough Shoal. That is a worry for foreigners as well as Hong Kongers, particularly those in media and academia who cannot avoid the subjects.
In short, the comfort with the One Country Two Systems formula that Hong Kong enjoyed for many years after the 1997 handover has been shattered over the past two years thanks to the combined efforts of Xi Jinping and his local acolyte, CY Leung. Yet Beijing seems not to learn that the Umbrella movement and now the surge of Independence advocacy are reactions against its own domestic descent into heavy-handed, chauvinist authoritarianism.