On 4 June, a few days before 2 million people took to the streets against Hong Kong’s extradition law amendment, around 180,000 citizens attended a vigil in the city’s Victoria Park.
Held to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen massacre – a bloody command made by Chinese Communist Party leaders to disperse the crowds and nullify the call for a democratic China – the event still attracts old and young, both local people and those from overseas, even after three decades.
The congregation not only marks people’s relentless pursuit of democracy and freedom but also symbolises Hong Kong’s standing as a free city, albeit one whose status is potentially waning, and whose sovereignty was handed over from Britain to China in 1997 under the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984.
Many western countries resumed trade with China soon after the massacre, hoping to facilitate the country’s political transformation through economic partnership. People realised this strategy had failed to deliver when the new generation of Chinese Communist Party leaders took a more unwavering stance in protecting their regime.
And so when the extradition bill was proposed in Hong Kong only a matter of weeks ago, the rule of law, the core value that distinguishes Hong Kong from China, was seen clearly as a threat to its autonomy. For the people of Hong Kong, this signalled the collapse of the political promises laid out in the 1980s to assure local residents and overseas investors of Hong Kong’s economic prosperity after the CCP assumed sovereignty of Hong Kong.
In response to the crumbling of the one country, two systems principle, 2 million people took to the streets; a diversified mass across political camps, class spectrums and age groups, together pushing back against the red line redrawn by the authority. Even after Carrie Lam, the chief executive, announced the suspension of the bill, many local residents were not content with the result and are now asking for more action to agitate for greater fundamental change.
Protesters believe the goals of the mass mobilisations are still incomplete. They have not forced the chief executive to step down; haven’t yet gained immunity from political prosecution; nor forced the authorities to relabel their actions as “protests” rather than “riots”; and are still pressuring the executive into holding the police to account for the use of 150 tear gas canisters, numerous rounds of rubber bullets, and 20 beanbag shots, causing injury to protesters.
Protesters have now lost all faith in the government; they are rejecting its capacity to rule and spying political manoeuvring in all of its proposals. There is declining confidence in the government, and the police brutality and authoritarian governance used to quash the protests are two sides of the same coin.
Which brings us back to democratic movements of recent years. The CCP government smashed the possibility of democratic reform five years ago, triggering the Umbrella Movement, a nearly three-month-long occupation of the streets. Although many young people were politicised by it, the momentum dipped when the ruling regime forced the semi-independent court to disqualify six newly elected pro-self-determination and pro-independence lawmakers, and imprisoned many frontline activists, including ourselves. The fear of the extradition law amendment is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the grievances of the people of Hong Kong.
Citizens are also looking for economic alternatives, hoping to go beyond the functional city defined by the British government and the CCP regime. Once upon a time, the people of Hong Kong were proud of creating a robust, export-oriented industrial city, one of the four Asian tiger economies, later turning into a global financial city with booming tourism.
However, almost 22 years after the handover of sovereignty, the damage of a governing coalition of business elites, local bureaucrats and CCP leaders that opposes democratic reform, the regulation of excessive working hours, and a comprehensive pension system, has taken its toll. There is also a hyper-awareness of the city’s fragility through its over-reliance on food and water from China, absorbing excessive numbers of Chinese tourists for chain stores, and accepting unrestricted Chinese capital to purchase local media, land and housing.
The political regression and economic erosion are turning Hong Kong into an unliveable city with homogeneous industries, self-censoring press and universities, tilted social and land policies, and unaffordable housing prices. The more we rely on China, the fewer bargaining chips the people of Hong Kong will possess to call for electoral reform in the long run. The deterioration on all fronts also paves the way for the increasing overconfidence and arrogance of Hong Kong and Chinese officials. The extradition bill is only one example of their hubris.
The fight in Hong Kong is part of the struggle for a free and equal world; an aspiration that communities co-exist with equality, collaboration, vibrancy, and democracy. To achieve such a dream, defending Hong Kong’s rule of law and defeating the extradition bill is where the people must start.
But our long-term hopes rely on whether we can pressurise the CCP to devolve its power to the people and implement genuine electoral democracy at various administrative and community levels. And we must remember that a democratic Hong Kong could lead to a more democratic China. With a stable polity and healthy economy, the world’s rising superpower could play a role in making the world a better place.
The people of Hong Kong are prepared for the fight, directing their demand from the extradition bill to the defence of and reform of the one country, two systems principle; a long lost promise that should be upheld collectively by the international community. In the G20 summit held in late June, the stage is set for the people and world leaders to give voice to their vision of a better world – a world that would not turn a blind eye to the plight of those in Hong Kong.
Joshua Wong and Alex Chow are leaders of the Umbrella Movement, a pro-democracy protest movement in Hong Kong
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