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Support Hong Kong’s Fight for Democracy

SNA (London) — Twelve weeks into pro-democracy demonstrations, Hong Kong is on the verge of a tipping point, and protesters are becoming increasingly desperate in the face of inaction by their government. Hongkongers should not be left alone to protest in vain; they need international support and solidarity to protect their rights and freedoms along with “one country, two systems,”

It all kicked off on June 9, when one million Hongkongers peacefully marched from Victoria Park to Admiralty to show their opposition to a proposed extradition bill. This bill would have allowed authorities in mainland China, Taiwan, and Macau to extradite suspected criminals from Hong Kong. Many feared that it could result in political dissidents being extradited to mainland China to face what are arguably kangaroo courts, eroding free speech in Hong Kong. A protest a week later attracted a crowd of two million, with Hongkongers from all walks of life coming together to defend their rights and freedoms.

In the face of the massive public backlash, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, “suspended” the bill and declared it “dead.” Protesters have rejected her remarks and say that she could reintroduce the bill once public dissidence dies down. And so the protests have continued, now with five key demands: formally withdrawing the extradition bill; withdrawing the police’s description of the protests as “riots”; granting amnesty for arrested protesters; launching an independent inquiry into police brutality; and implementing genuine universal suffrage for the Legislative Council and chief executive elections.

The extradition bill was merely another effort to erode Hongkongers’ rights and freedoms and to trample on the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 which grants Hong Kong relative autonomy from the Chinese mainland government until 2047. Booksellers and business tycoons have disappeared from the island, mysteriously showing up later in Chinese custody. Pro-democracy lawmakers have been unfairly disqualified from taking public office, and creatives on the island have been pressured to censor their works. Pro-independence political parties have been banned; a law was forced through which criminalizes “perceived insults” to the Chinese national anthem by amending the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s​ de facto constitution. The Basic Law declares universal suffrage is an “ultimate aim” for chief executive elections, but so far Beijing has ignored that.

As the weeks pass, police brutality is becoming more widespread. They have used hundreds of rounds of tear gas, scores of rubber bullets, and allegedly used bean-bag rounds to blind a protester. They stood aside as suspected Triad gangs invaded an MTR station in Yuen Long, beating up commuters, pregnant women and children, and leaving pools of blood in their wake. They used tear gas inside an MTR station, an act which the UN Human Rights Office said violated “international norms and standards.” Riot police have kicked protesters down escalators and used pepper spray and tear gas against journalists. Undercover police have disguised themselves as protesters and arrested many using this tactic; video footage shows officers planting weapons on demonstrators.

As a result, protesters are becoming increasingly desperate. Small radical groups have hurled bricks, water bottles, and petrol bombs at police.

During the airport sit-in demonstrations, they even beat unconscious suspected undercover police officers. It is worth remembering, however, that the climate of fear and mistrust which led to these violent acts were created by the Hong Kong authorities themselves. While protests two weeks ago passed by relatively peacefully, with many demonstrators avowing to never again resort to violent means of resistance, clashes broke out between demonstrators and police again last weekend.

Hong Kong is on the verge of a tipping point, in which anarchy threatens to engulf the territory, and in which its famed reputation as an international financial hub may be lost forever. Beijing sent in hundreds of People’s Liberation Army troops to the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border, while analysts have said that this move amounts to a mere show of force, it is still incredibly threatening. The Chinese Communist Party has described protesters as “terrorists,” accusing “hostile foreign forces” of meddling in Hong Kong. However, Facebook and Twitter reported that it has been China-based accounts that have spread misinformation about the protests.

In light of this turmoil, Hong Kong’s economy is showing signs of strain. The island’s stock market is down 12%, with GDP growth at a standstill. Tourist numbers are down 13%. There are widespread fears that businesses will flee abroad to Singapore or other competing trade hubs. Analysts have predicted doomsday-type scenarios in which there will be widespread capital-flight and the death of Hong Kong’s property market.

With the situation dire, protesters have begged the international community for help, placing advertisements in several newspapers across ten countries, including Japan’s ​Nihon Keizai Shinbun.​

Several countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States, are complicit in Hong Kong’s political crisis. When Hong Kong was a British colony, the United Kingdom failed to implement democratic reforms, only making a half-hearted attempt at the eleventh hour. The United Kingdom has supplied Hong Kong with millions of pounds worth of tear gas, assault rifles, and other crowd-control equipment, and recently invited a Hong Kong delegation to a London-based armed fair which is due to take place in early September. The US government has also supplied Hong Kong with millions of dollars worth of military equipment, including tear gas.

To their credit, much of the international community have stood up for the protesters, at least verbally. US President Donald Trump said that any US-China trade deal would be on the line if Beijing “did something violent” in Hong Kong (although he did display a profound lack of understanding of the situation in the process, tweeting that if Chinese President Xi Jinping “sat down with the protesters, he’d work it out in 15 minutes”). Several Democratic Party presidential candidates have also expressed support for the protest movement, including Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, and Bernie Sanders. Both O’Rourke and Sanders said they would be willing to sanction officials who commit human rights abuses. A bipartisan group of lawmakers have introduced the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act to the US Congress, which would “freeze US-based assets and deny entry into the US” of “persons responsible for the surveillance, abduction, detention or forced confessions of certain booksellers and journalists in Hong Kong.” Politicians from the United Kingdom, Canada, the European Union, Australia, Estonia, Germany, and Taiwan have all indicated support in various remarks.

But the international community has not yet done much beyond paying lip service. This is due to a fear of any backlash from Beijing, especially access to China’s massive domestic market. This is why countries like India, Israel, Pakistan, and Singapore have either stood on the fence or have been pro-Beijing in regard to the demonstrations. It also explains why corporations such as Standard Chartered, HSBC, Cathay Pacific, the Japanese multinational Asics, and the Japanese restaurant chain Yoshinoya have appeared to be pro-Beijing in several statements.

But these countries and corporations should remember that it is a free and open Hong Kong which benefits them the most. Indeed, initially business elites tried to pressure Carrie Lam into abandoning the extradition bill before the protest movement had started. Hong Kong is used as a “gateway” by many international firms to the highly-restricted, but also highly-lucrative, mainland Chinese markets. The island has a higher credit rating than mainland China and is recognized as a “developed” stock market by index firms. The United States, Europe, and Beijing regard the Hong Kong Stock Exchange as equal to theirs, a privilege which is not extended to the Shenzhen or Shanghai Stock Exchange, for example. Beijing’s efforts to erode “one country, two systems” threatens Hong Kong’s status as an international trade hub famed for its rules-based order and openness.

Beijing, in fact, would do well to remember that an open, free Hong Kong benefits them as well, even if Hong Kong’s economy is declining in terms of the proportion it makes up of China’s GDP. The island gives China access to international markets. Several Chinese giants, including Tencent, Alibaba, and Huawei list themselves on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange to give international investors mainland exposure. Additionally, most Chinese foreign direct investment flows through the territory.

There are many concrete steps the international community can take to prevent the erosion of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong and to stand up for the long-suffering pro-democracy protesters.

When Congress restarts after summer break on September 9, it should do all it can to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. While it targets those who are responsible for the “surveillance, abduction, detention or forced confessions” of booksellers and journalists in Hong Kong, it should also target those who are responsible for the police brutality that has been on display during the protests, as Sanders and O’Rourke have suggested. Deploying Global Magnitsky Act sanctions against figures such as Deputy Police Commissioner Alan Lau, Commissioner of Police Stephen Lo Wai-Chung and head of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Zhang Xiaoming would be a decent start.

The United Kingdom has a special responsibility as it is a central party to the Sino-British Joint Declaration, and is hence responsible to guarantee Hongkongers the rights bestowed in that document. London is rightfully concerned about Beijing’s assertions that it is “not at all binding for the central government’s management over Hong Kong.” It should do more than pay lip service and instead push for meetings with China to discuss the status of the agreement they signed thirty-five years ago. Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat’s plan to extend “full citizenship rights to the Hong Kong Chinese” is another good idea. However, the United Kingdom has a post-Brexit trade deal with China on the line, and so it may not want to risk this deal over the Hong Kong issue.

Similarly, Japan, while not being directly involved in the demonstrations, can do much more. There is a sizable Japanese diaspora living in Hong Kong (around 27,000 residents) and thousands of Japanese companies and several banks have set up shop there as well. Hong Kong is also one of the major beneficiaries of Japan’s outward direct investment, and the island is Japan’s eighth-largest trading partner per the most recent statistics. Japan has plenty of reason to advocate a more open and free Hong Kong.

Japan and the rest of the international community should stand up for the Hong Kong protesters, who have been demonstrating valiantly almost every day in the face of tear gas, severe beatings and police conduct which has been described as violating international law.

The author would like to thank China Inoue for assisting with translation of research material for this article.

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