Recently, the international community has seen the will of democracy tested – from fraudulent elections to anti-corruption protests, it is clear that the international community has an uphill battle trying to fight for civil liberties. Perhaps the most high profile and well-discussed fight for democracy is the case of Hong Kong, where anti-government and pro-democracy activists have been protesting since the summer of 2019.
WHAT’S HAPPENING IN HONG KONG
In June of 2019, thousands of citizens of semi-autonomous Hong Kong gathered in opposition of a proposed extradition bill, which would allow authorities to extradite fugitives to mainland China, effectively circumventing the legal system currently present in the city. That extradition bill and its subsequent disregard of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ agreement from China in Hong Kong, has motivated protestors for nearly a year and a half. Despite starting peaceful, the protests descended quickly into violence, with many protestors alleging both police negligence in keeping the peace and brutality, which became one of five core demands of the protestors. In addition to an independent inquiry into police violence, protestors demanded the extradition bill be withdrawn, universal suffrage, the end to the classification of protests as ‘riots’, and amnesty for detained protestors. These demands signalled that the protests no longer focused primarily on the indefinite withdrawal of the extradition bill, but had shifted into a larger pro-democracy movement.
The protests came to a head during the clashes between police and protestors at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where police had cornered protestors for seven days, and became one of the most violent confrontations of the ongoing movement. According to BBC, protestors feared for their freedom and safety if they left their barricade, where the charge of rioting carries a 10-year prison sentence. The protests, despite continued police crackdowns and interference from China, have continued well into 2020 and the pro-democracy movement does not appear to wane amongst those who most believe in its cause.
THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC AND WHAT IT MEANS FOR HONG KONG
Much like protests in the United States, COVID-19 has not deterred pro-democracy activists from protesting in Hong Kong. However, Hong Kong authorities have attempted to use the current pandemic to quell the protests entirely, including putting protestors at risk. In October of 2019, Hong Kong authorities banned the use of face masks during gatherings, which would allow for authorities to identify protestors – Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, refused to allow for surgical masks and face coverings at demonstrations. The Guardian also reports that during the pandemic, Hong Kong courts continued to prosecute activists, despite infections in the city increasing at a rapid rate.
China had also decided to capitalize on the dwindling attention given to protests by, once again, circumventing Hong Kong’s legal process and implementing immediately a national security bill in the city, which criminalizes secession, subversion, and collusion – effectively criminalizing pro-democracy protests and China’s most bold attempt to enforce its authority in the city. High profile pro-democracy activists have been primarily targeted by the new law in a brazen attempt to silence and ultimately eliminate the opposition. This new law, unsurprisingly, led to a renewed surge in protests and subsequently, continued arrests.
On September 8th, a pro-democracy radio host was arrested under a sedition law not used in nearly 24 years, one of many activists to be arrested as a result of China’s crackdown on the city. This sedition law will allow China to intimidate potential dissidents, or anyone viewed as a threat to authority, and allow China a more prominent hand in ‘maintaining national security’ in Hong Kong.
RESPONSE BY THE UNITED STATES
In theory, the response by the United States has been in favor of the protestors – in the summer, the US imposed sanctions against Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and in the fall of 2019, Donald Trump signed a bill signalling support for the Hong Kong protests. However, the stance of the Trump administration, as well as corporations within the US, seem performative at best. Before signing the bill supporting Hong Kong protestors, Trump proclaimed his support for the protestors with the relatively important caveat that he, too, was a friend of Chinese President Xi and that he intended to continue negotiating a trade deal with China despite the clear violation of civil liberties. The New York Times also reports that at the outset of the protests, Trump told President Xi that he would avoid publicly supporting the protests so long as trade negotiations continued. Ironically, the Attorney General of the United States, William Barr, suggested charging violent protestors with sedition, according to CNN, which is extremely reminiscent of tactics of Hong Kong authorities to quell democracy protests.
Additionally, the Guardian reports that the NBA is in the midst of repairing a damaged relationship following the general manager of the Houston Rockets tweeting support for the protests in Hong Kong, which caused Chinese television networks to halt broadcasts of NBA games. The NBA subsequently apologized to China over the tweet, calling it “regrettable” that it offended fans in China – importantly, China is a major market for the NBA, and the loss of that market will likely have financial impacts on the league.
Ultimately, it is concerning to see both the current administration as well as a very influential American corporation squander in their support of pro-democracy protests, and it is becoming clear that the position of both the administration and the NBA is to show support for activists only until doing so adversely impacts their financial relationship with China.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
With China as an ascending global power and the United States’ clear aversion to any meaningful and sustained action in support of Hong Kong civilians, it becomes worrisome how human rights and civil liberties are seemingly put on the metaphorical back-burner in favour of maintaining economic ties. The international community can and must reflect on the sacrifices of continuing to strategically ignore China’s disregard of human rights to have an opportunity to access Chinese markets – nation states must ask themselves if this opportunity is worth sacrificing the safety and freedom of citizens of Hong Kong and mainland China.
TVO documentary “The Battle for Hong Kong.” Watch here.