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27 July


Expert: Hong Kong is gradually dying

How freedom of speech in the city died and what to do now

Protest Photo: Reuters

/NOVOSTIVL/ Two years before China took back control of the city from Britain, U.S. business magazine Fortune forecast on its cover that the 1997 handover would be "The death of Hong Kong". This article appeared in the Nikkei Asian Review.

Contrary to the pessimism of the Western media and figures it embraced like local lawyer Martin Lee and Chris Patten, the colony's last British governor, Hong Kong did not die after 1997 nor did its residents flee en masse.

Instead, the city prospered and its population grew while continuing to enjoy civil liberties unheard of in mainland China. Indeed, at the time of the handover, most Hong Kong people were quite proud of China and despite their nervousness about the future, basically loyal to it.

Crucially, China scrupulously honored the terms of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong's future as well as the promises of the Basic Law, the constitutional framework created for the post-handover administration even as Britain dishonored consultation requirements when overhauling the legislature and constructing an expensive new airport.

Indeed, up until recently, it did, notwithstanding occasional stresses. But in the last few years, Beijing has prioritized control over observance of the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law.

In 2015, Chinese security officials detained five Hong Kongers who were publishing embarrassing books about Beijing leaders, with one disappearing from Hong Kong into their custody. Soon after, that genre of books disappeared.

In 2017, Chinese public security officers took businessman Xiao Jianhua from Four Seasons Hong Kong Hotel and brought him across the border. In 2018, a Financial Times editor was refused a new work visa after hosting a speech to foreign journalists by a Hong Kong independence activist.

Suddenly Hong Kong had lost freedom of the press, freedom of speech and the rule of law. For the first time, Beijing had definitively broken its promises to Hong Kong.

Popular frustration and fear built up, but Hong Kong officials did not speak out. A Shanghai leader would have defended his city's core interests. But even though Hong Kong's leaders come from Hong Kong, they have acted as emissaries of Beijing.

The rule of law cannot just mean rule of law except when Beijing feels the urgent need to arrest someone. Freedom of the press and speech don't exist if waived when political leaders face embarrassment.

These are not small things. People accustomed to freedoms have felt deeply betrayed. The Hong Kong government's rushed attempt in June to push through a law to allow the extradition of criminal suspects to the mainland provided an outlet for political frustrations that had been building up since Beijing blocked proposals in 2014 to open up elections to give the public a bigger voice. While economic inequality has magnified the political frustrations, it is the loss of freedoms that has driven the protests.

The extradition bill managed to bring the business community, and even elite civil servants, together with rights activists. Executives were terrified that if they got into a business dispute in China, officials would be able to reach into Hong Kong to grab them.

In responding to repeated demonstrations since June involving millions of residents, officials have doubled down on earlier missteps. Telling businesses like Cathay Pacific Airways that they will suffer if their employees verbally support peaceful protests grievously breaches promised free speech.

International companies vulnerable to threats based on their employees' politics will depart the city, ending Hong Kong as we know it. If the police successfully repress the demonstrations by force, frustrations will just rise and protests will recur later.