Guest Column

‘Use Your Liberty to Promote Ours’

By Debby Sze Wan Chan 13 August 2019

As a Hong Kong-based researcher who studies Sino-Myanmar relations, I travel to Myanmar from time to time. To my surprise, during my fieldwork on communities affected by China’s Belt and Road projects, I learned that many activists and local people have heard of Hong Kong. Although some people mentioned Hong Kong action movies, many others know the city because of the Umbrella movement in 2014; the kidnapping of booksellers to China in 2015; and the disqualification of lawmakers in 2016. The extradition law controversy in recent months has caught Myanmar’s attention again.

In February 2019, the Hong Kong government proposed to amend the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance (or “extradition law”) in Hong Kong ostensibly in response to a murder case in Taiwan. The suspect, a Hong Kong citizen, is accused of killing his girlfriend in February 2019. He fled to Hong Kong subsequently. At present, no extradition agreement exists between Hong Kong and Taiwan. For this reason, the Hong Kong government could not extradite the suspect to Taiwan to face trial. To perform justice, it proposed to amend the extradition law to plug the legal “loophole.” The proposed amendment would allow the Hong Kong government to extradite suspects to China, including Taiwan, which China insists is under its sovereignty. This triggered Hongkongers’ fears that we could be subject to Chinese laws in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, became part of China in 1997. As part of the sovereignty handover pact, China implements the “One Country, Two Systems” principle in Hong Kong. The policy promises that Hong Kong can retain its economic and political systems for 50 years until 2047. Apparently, it is not the economic system, but the political system, that distinguishes Hong Kong from China. Hong Kong is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; our freedom of expression, assembly and association are protected under the Bill of Rights Ordinance. And Hong Kong is the only Chinese territory where people can call for an end to the one-party dictatorship in China. Hongkongers are not ignorant about gross human rights violations in China and skeptical about China’s judicial system, whose judges answer to the Communist Party. Citizens fear that we could be extradited to China for crimes that we have not committed. Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing Kei’s ordeal is an example of the unjust judicial system in China. Lam’s bookstore sold Chinese political books that were banned in China. He has been detained for almost eight months under the charge of “illegal operation of book sales” for posting books from Hong Kong to China. His business partner Gui Minghai, who resided in Thailand, was arrested for an alleged drunken driving death in China in the same period. His daughter insisted that the case was fabricated.

Since March 2019, Hong Kong citizens have taken to the streets to oppose the law. Many professional organizations, including the Bar Association and the Law Society, local and international chambers of commerce, such as the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce and American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, and leaders of the major religions have raised grave concerns over the bill. To many people’s despair, the Hong Kong government did not change its mind, not even when 1 million citizens marched peacefully on June 9. The government still claimed that citizens misunderstood the bill. Thousands of protesters had no choice but to surrounded the legislature to stop the passing of the bill on June 12. Police dispersed protesters with excessive violence. Around 150 canisters of tear gas were fired at protesters, along with rubber bullets aimed at protesters’ heads. Police also rounded up individual protesters and beat them with batons. The government also characterized the protest as a riot and charged some of the protesters with rioting. They could face 10 years’ imprisonment if convicted. On the contrary, no police officer was held accountable for their abuse of power.

Admittedly, some of the protesters engaged in violence. Who pushes the young generation to brave tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray and the batons of the police? Why have they risked their freedom and future in the movement? Following the million-strong protest on June 9 and the clash on June 12, the government claimed that it would suspend the bill. Yet, Hongkongers demanded the withdrawal of the bill. It triggered 2 million people to take to the streets on June 16. Netizens raised money and placed advertisements in over a dozen international newspapers, including The New York Times and The Guardian. Elderly people took part in a hunger strike. Civil servants from various departments issued open letters. More dishearteningly, six young people committed suicide to urge the government to address protesters’ demands. These have all been discounted by the government. On July 1, the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China, protesters broke into the legislative council at night. They left a slogan on the wall, “You taught us peaceful protests are useless.”  It is the Hong Kong government’s arrogance that pushes agitated young people to take the radical pathway in this social movement.

The tension escalated as the government refused to enter into dialogue with the opposition and intensified violence against protesters. Between June 9 and Aug. 5, police fired 1,800 canisters of tear gas, 300 rubber bullets and 170 sponge grenades at protesters. At least 700 protesters have been arrested in this extradition law saga. Forty-four protesters were charged with rioting. Many of those who are prosecuted are teens and young people in their 20s.

The political crisis in Hong Kong is rooted in the failure of our political system. In Myanmar, a quarter of seats in the Parliament are appointed by the military. In Hong Kong, 30 out of 70 seats, or 43 percent of the seats, in our legislature are not directly elected by the general public. Our chief executive is elected by a 1,200-person election committee. This explains why the chief executive can dismiss citizens’ demands. In the anti-extradition law movement, we call for universal suffrage in Hong Kong to rectify problems in our political system.

In a semi-closed political system, governments can choose to offer concessions or render repression to discourage people from participating in contentious politics. Most unfortunately, the Hong Kong government adopts the repression strategy. Instead of deterring protesters from taking to the streets, political repression drives more people to accept radical actions. A study by Professor Marco Giugni suggests that political scientists and sociologists have not concluded predictable outcomes of disruptive protests. It is essential to examine how a specific strategy interacts with public opinion and political institutions in a particular political setting. In the context of Hong Kong, public opinion is crystal clear. According to an opinion poll conducted by the Public Opinion Research Institute in late July, almost 80 percent of respondents called for an independent commission of inquiry to look into the extradition bill controversy. Over 70 percent of respondents urged the government to completely withdraw the bill. Meanwhile, over 60 percent of respondents demanded political reform. Contrary to Professor Michael Lipsky’s analysis that social movements can generate bargaining resources by winning public support, the Hong Kong government only cares about Beijing’s preference. The government shows no political will to solve the political deadlock. It only looks to the police force to quell protests. More violent clashes between police and protesters are expected.

In mid-July, a riot in the city shocked the world. Triad society members in white clothes attacked protesters and ordinary citizens right under the nose of police. Regrettably, no perpetrator has been charged so far even though there have been pictures and footage that showed the perpetrators’ identity. Similar attacks in a smaller scale happened in different districts in the past few days. Hong Kong needs international support more than ever. When Myanmar was still under the military dictatorship, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi used to tell the international community, “Use your liberty to promote ours.” I am not optimistic that the state counselor will speak up for Hong Kong. However, I have faith in Myanmar citizens. Please stand with Hong Kong.

Hongkonger Debby Sze Wan Chan is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Sociology at the University of Hong Kong.

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