Step by Step, Hong Kong’s Freedoms Vanish

Local authorities, backed by Beijing, continue to chisel away at press, critics

Slowly but surely, the bamboo splinters are growing into the body of a prostrate Hong Kong, tied down by the National Security Law and a police force ever-more under Beijing’s direction.

Each bamboo spike may seem small in itself but in combination threaten the life of the city as a genuinely autonomous region governed in accordance with the Basic Law as understood at the time it was negotiated and promulgated. The territory is now barely any more autonomous in political matters than Xinjiang where the non-Han majority is under constant close surveillance.

One such recent spike was the announcement by the police of a hotline by which citizens could report those who they considered were speaking of acting in conflict with the National Security Law. That is a chilling reminder of the days of the Cultural Revolution when people were encouraged to report even close family members deemed counter-revolutionary. The system opens up an easy means of taking revenge on personal enemies, or blackmailing people with threats of being reported.

Whether the incident is directly related is unsure. But on Nov. 3, police arrested Bao Choy Yuk-ling, who co-produced an episode of the television show Hong Kong Connection for RTHK, the city’s public broadcaster, over a program about a mob attack at Yuen Long railway station, one of the most controversial and divisive chapters in last year’s anti-government protests.

The program was highly embarrassing to the police, some of whom were shown to be standing by as thugs attacked peaceful demonstrators. Some of the attackers, according to the documentary, were shown to be local village officials. Bao was accused of making a false declaration in seeking the names of owners of cars driven to the scene of the attack. A police source told local media the investigation was prompted by a complaint from a member of the public and a referral from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data.

Local media and human rights organizations erupted in outrage, saying the arrest would have a chilling effect on investigative journalism, showing that the potential for criminality is large. More important though is its role of striking fear into actual or potential critics of government, making people distrust each other as though they were asymptomatic carriers of Covid-19, an army of secret agents in every office and housing estate.

Meanwhile, the administration of existing law based on English Common Law is increasingly being used by the Judiciary, a government department, to intimidate judges. Last week a court freed five people accused of the serious charge of rioting (which carries long jail terms) on grounds of lack of evidence. Instead of accepting the verdict, the Secretary of Justice indicated there would be an appeal against it.

That was not the first time that the judiciary has objected to independent minded judges finding police evidence wanting. Not long ago a judge who dismissed a case and queried the veracity of police evidence soon found himself transferred. Although the department does have an appeal right, its recent use has clearly become political with a view to intimidate judges

Politically determined “justice” was also in evidence last week with the arrest of seven past and present opposition members of the Legislative Council for their role in a fracas which occurred in the council chamber last May. Though television footage clearly showed some pro-government legislators were also involved, none has been charged.

Unable to win enough seats by popular election – most pro-government legislators represent small constituencies of economic self-interest – the government is forever searching for new ways to rig the system. First, it was arranging for some opposition legislators to be found guilty of obscure offenses and disbarred. Then using administrative measures to stop pro-democracy candidates from running. Then it postponed for a year the elections which were supposed to have taken place in September, no one believing the claim that the Covid epidemic was the reason for the move.

Now it has found a new wheeze which will be eagerly backed by its self-seeking majority in the legislator. Hong Kong people living on the mainland would be able to vote – but not the large numbers living elsewhere in the world. It is not difficult to imagine what mainland authorities will do to maximize votes for government candidates and make opponents fearful. The blanket surveillance methods which were put into place in Xinjiang to enforce Han supremacy have been spreading to other regions, at least judging by reports of purchases of surveillance equipment. Covid tracing has given an added impetus to an existing trend.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam has meanwhile decided that the Legislative Council is so beneath her that she will no longer appear before it to answer questions on a regular basis – a practice which dates to the 1990s, introduced by the last colonial governor, Chris Patten. Lam evidently only see a need to report to Beijing’s Liaison Office, or Xi Jinping himself.

All in all for Hong Kong, the shackles tighten and the bamboos grow.

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