12 Feb Hong Kong’s Political Reforms: at a Critical Junction? IDEAS Event Briefing
The following essay is authored by Ioana Diac (First Year Representative for Ideas)
Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms have slowly been eroded by the Chinese central government since 2014. In this worrying political climate, The Wilberforce Society and Cambridge University Hong Kong and China Affairs Society co-hosted a panel discussion to examine the current state of affairs; inviting Benedict Rogers, Evan Fowler and Roderic Wye to share their thoughts on Hong Kong-China relations and what the future might hold.
All three speakers have close ties to Hong Kong, with Evan Fowler having grown up in the city in the 1980s and 90s at a time of great optimism, whilst Roderic Wye lived in Beijing and Benedict Rogers in Hong Kong when the UK handed sovereignty over Hong Kong back to China in 1997. Rogers is a British human rights activist who founded the non-governmental organisation Hong Kong Watch two months after he himself was denied entry into the city in 2017. Even though Rogers was planning a personal visit and was never given an official explanation by Hong Kong officials as to why he was barred, it was most probably due to his public affiliation and support of pro-independence Hong Kong activists. The NGO monitors the conditions of human rights, freedoms and rule of law in Hong Kong, raising awareness in the UK and the wider international community when violations of the rights and freedoms enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law take place. Given Britain’s shared history with Hong Kong as a former colony, Rogers believes the UK has both a moral and legal obligation to speak out against China’s infringement on the autonomy promised to Hong Kong during the 1997 handover under the “one country, two systems” model which promised the city would continue to enjoy economic and political freedoms such as the freedom of speech, press, and right to protest. Fowler co-founded the Hong Kong Free Press in 2015 – the city’s first crowdfunded media outlet – in light of growing concerns about declining press freedom in Hong Kong. Whilst other Hong Kong publications have been found to avoid criticising Beijing in order to maintain advertising revenues, Hong Kong Free Press seeks to unite critical voices to report the facts without fear, favour or interference as a free, non-profit online newspaper. Fowler remains the paper’s co-director and regular contributor today. Roderic Wye is an Associate Fellow of Chatham House with more than 30 years’ experience working as a government analyst specializing on China and East Asia for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Recent events have seen China impeding on these democratic freedoms, one of the first instances being China’s attempt in 2014 to introduce a selective pre-screening of candidates for the elections of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive in the hope of securing a pro-China candidate. This sparked the Umbrella Movement that led to a 79-day occupation of the city demanding freer elections which the authorities cracked down on by prosecuting and jailing movement activists for their participation. In 2017, Rogers organised an open letter from political figures around the world denouncing the “outrageously unjust” imprisonment of three of Hong Kong’s best known pro-democracy activists for their involvement in the 2014 movement. Five Hong Kong booksellers also disappeared in what is widely believed to be extrajudicial detentions by China’s security forces in 2015, elected lawmakers in the Legislative Council were barred from taking their seats for repeating their oaths of office in ways deemed disrespectful to China in 2017 and Victor Mallet, the Asia editor for the Financial Times, was stripped of his visa status, likely because he had hosted a talk with a speaker who advocates for Hong Kong’s independence. With Hong Kong set to introduce a controversial bill that would make disrespecting the Chinese national anthem a crime punishable by up to three years in prison, confidence in Hong Kong’s institutions, widely seen as central not only to its culture but also to its economic standing, is at an all-time low.
Fowler and Wye both raised the lack of democratic tradition in Hong Kong as one of the key problems contributing to the situation. Wye points to the fact that Hong Kong has never operated as a normal democratic society, with no tradition of developing political leaders because the existence of such opportunities would inevitably go against Beijing’s wishes. The more democratic discussion, the less the People’s Republic of China are willing to offer moves towards greater democratisation. Rogers remarked that Hong Kong’s current Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, is representing China’s interests to Hong Kong more than she represents Hong Kong’s interests to China. The 2017 elections for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive did indeed show that the outcome is very much within Beijing’s control, with the elections working using a ‘small-circle’ process that favours Beijing as opposed to universal suffrage. Lam was the favoured candidate of the Chinese central government and many of its supporters in Hong Kong, yet her election was met with some protests at the election venue calling for ‘genuine universal suffrage’. Fowler commented that the lack of political leadership in Hong Kong goes back to a long history of the absence of democratic culture where just one state-sponsored narrative was drilled into people. There is a general lack of public discussion about the issues people are concerned about, whereby people are reluctant to publicly say how they privately feel.
Wye pointed to the great difficulties in making any progress on democratising Hong Kong since promises of greater democracy are made in very vague terms. Once attempts at specific discussions start, people realise the details are “fiendishly complex.” Questions such as what kind of democratic system will actually be put into place remain unresolved, and the difficulty of deciding amongst multiple options is one of the reasons for the delay in the process. This is compounded by the fact that there is no time pressure, such as the equivalent of the UK’s ‘article 50’ to reach a decision or any outside pressure from the international community to make it happen. As opposed to the promised “one country, two systems” agreement, the reality is more like “one country first, two systems later” as Beijing exerts one-way, top-down control. Wye argued that Hong Kong needs to know what it wants and express it clearly, yet it has shown it is currently unable to do so.
Some gloomy outlooks on the future of Hong Kong were expressed. The crucial question for Wye is whether Hong Kong is just going to become another Chinese city as more and more avenues towards freedom of speech are closed down and the Chinese government will likely only become more intolerant towards divergent views. Fowler expressed feeling a sense of powerless over the expulsion of the Financial Times editor for the message it sends out: that even as an international westerner you are still not welcome in Hong Kong. Fowler thinks the cloud of suppression where people are unable to express how they really feel will soon fall down on Hong Kong as it already has done on mainland China, with the fate of Hong Kong not in its own hands, but in Beijing’s.
All three panellists agreed on the need for the international community to do more to call out the “bully boy tactics” of China as Hong Kong’s political freedoms are violated. Driven by self-interest, Western governments are reluctant to interfere as China is a growing influence and economic powerhouse on the world stage, particularly in the case of the UK who would be seeking a trade deal with China after Brexit. This raises a question over the survival of democratic values in a world where the old democracies increasingly fail to fight for them. Fowler argued that we need to celebrate Western liberal institutions and their tradition of democracy more so as not to lose the battle at home. Wye mentioned how China has always been envious of the soft power attraction of our Western institutions, something they have obsessed in trying to gain yet unable to achieve it in such a mechanical way. Rogers urges that Western countries need to realise the importance of keeping Hong Kong alive given it is such hugely important financial centre. One way in which this could be done is through talking to these western countries in the language of the rule of law and the negative impact an undemocratic Hong Kong could have on the commercial sector in order to incentivise other countries to act. Similarly, Wye thinks Hong Kong needs the most support in maintaining the rule of law so that its trading partnerships with other countries are not damaged by a loss of confidence in its markets.
Overall, Hong Kong no longer seems to serve the purpose it once had as being ‘a door into china,’ yet retains importance for China because of the international confidence in Hong Kong’s rule of law for commercial credibility. Fowler noted that a “small hope for Chinese democracy lit up in Hong Kong but that is now dwindling.” Let’s hope we can keep it alive and prevent it from extinguishing before it’s too late.