Hong Kong’s fight for autonomy: A Torchbearer for Democracy

After Umbrella Movement of 2014, this year’s anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong mean the death knell for China’s attempt to tame the Special Administrative Region. Once a British colony, Hong Kong is emerging now as a beacon of hope for modern democratic movements.

Ujjawal Krishnam

Hong Kong today enjoys socio-political, economic and legal autonomy in spite of being a Chinese territory. After the transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997, the concept of “one country, two systems” emerged which has been governing the special administrative region on the eastern side of the Pearl River estuary in southern China since then.

However, the autonomy came under direct threat after the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill was introduced this year. The need of this amendment surfaced in the wake of a murder case which raised questions on Hong Kong’s extradition policy. Chang Tong-kai, 20, is at the centre of extradition bill over Hong Kong’s proposal to transfer the fugitives to Taiwan, Macau and the mainland China. Chan admitted that he had killed his girlfriend, Poon Hui-wing, 20, after learning that she was pregnant with another man’s child while the two were in Taiwan on holiday in 2018. In contrast, Hong Kong Bar Association is of the view that the legislative amendment would jeopardize the judicial independence of Hong Kong as the criminal justice system in the authoritarian mainland China is regressive and biased thus undermining the fundamental rights of Hongkongers. If the bill is passed, the fugitives will lose immunity against extradition to mainland China.

More so, the bill has been temporarily suspended but protesters want a final word on it. Chief Executive Carrie Lam has certainly failed to gauge the situation, even China has declined to accept her resignation, allegedly asking Lam “to clean up her own mess”. Also, the Executive Council with most of pro-Beijing stakeholders has not paid attention to uprising and the demands of Hongkongers, bringing the peaceful city to a halt. On the other end, pro-Beijing writers and Chinese state media are engaged in projecting a different picture which blames Britain of inciting and fuelling the protests.  While Hong Kong administration is planning to suppress the pathological protests, armed mob violence by anti-protesters have left the Special Administrative Region or SAR in trauma. After riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protests, masked men stormed MTR station on July 21 attacking passengers making their way back from the protests. The violence left 45 injured.

The protesters are mostly youngsters–the reason is evident– as the young generation fears for its future. China may succeed the SAR as the current arrangement is set to expire in 2047, this is troubling Hong Kong as the deadline approaches.

Protests are not uncommon in recent history of Hong Kong. In this decade, Hongkongers have stood up en masse with an unmatched zeal to safeguard their rights. The memories of Umbrella Revolution of 2014 are still fresh. As the absolute universal suffrage is still a dream for Hong Kong, the demands took a shape of revolt following the release of a reform framework on mainland Chinese terms allowing only “committee-approved” candidates to run.  This added the fuel to fire, and the students thronged to the city’s central business district. The economic area transformed into a virtual conflict zone shuttering business activity. While protests largely proved futile, they certainly gave rise to new civilian movements. After five years of Umbrella Revolution, extradition protests appear successful. The untiring rebellion for self-governance in Hong Kong is truly torchbearer if not utopian parlance.

The delivery vehicle of this successful expression of dissent lies in the infrastructure of Hong Kong’s educational institutions too. The institutional autonomy prevailing in Hong Kong’s world-renowned campuses like Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) has been a vital catalyst to develop free will among young protesters. The institutions do not entertain any political interference, this is evident from a statement released on July 4 by the student union at HKUST. The union said that “the Hong Kong government had approached it through a university administration intermediary asking for a closed-door meeting”. However, the students had declined any such meeting. Thus, the administrative strategy to split student unity by inviting students of selective universities for the dialogue is terribly failing. The only option Lam has to fully retract the amendment bill and police probe into defacing of the buildings and Chinese national insignia, otherwise her deafening silence may further inflame the student anger.

Besides, the flame of Hong Kong protests is set to travel far in the continent torn by political conflicts and governmental decrees. What the rebels in different parts of the world can learn from Hong Kong style of protests is the peaceful resentment comporting with the demand for an absolute democracy. The pathway for democratic autonomy or swarajya (self-rule) must not be undemocratic in itself. Khorasanis, Khalistanis, Kashmiris, Naxalites and Sri Lankan Tamil rebels in South Asia have a lot left to learn from Hong Kong. The metamorphosis is very much needed if dissidents want themselves to be heard, elected or even to deliver their ideas to the countrymen. The nearest ne plus ultra is the outcome of Hong Kong-mainland China dispute on economic front.   The inclusion of Hong Kong in Chinese project for an integrated economic and business hub linking Macau and Hong Kong with nine other mainland cities is a testimony to the fact that the Chinese administration has no alternative except to bend to the will of majority of Hongkongers for open dialogue channels and inclusive business opportunities while keeping sovereignty and fundamental rights intact. Had there been violence on the part of protesters, situation would not have been the same. “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind,” Mahatma Gandhi rightly said once. Gun vs Gun strategy may never win, it will only lead to blood bath and violent defeat as it is not easy to fight and win over an armed nation state. Lord Denning wrote in the mid twentieth century that “the freedom of individual must take second place to the security of the State”, and this has evolved as the dynamics of every nation state today, albeit with a parochial slant. The notion of sporadic militant rebellion sounds primitive in this century, it also serves circuitous towards the end goal. Anti-Duterte protests modelled on Hong Kong are certainly bringing change in Philippines. Maria Ressia writing in Columbia Journalism Review highlighted how Rappler, the news network founded by Ressa, peacefully fought back for press freedom and won. Writer Devdutt Pattanaik once told this author about the legal fight against homophobic colonial Section 377 of Indian Penal Code: “Struggle is good. It helps us clarify what matters.”

It is also the fault in the democratic government machinery. Democratically chosen government acts like authoritarian. Historian Harbans Mukhia comprehensibly postulates that democracy as we see now is inherently flawed as the identity politics has damaged the concept of free and fair elections. Mukhia believes that the elections conducted around the individuals or the heads of government invested with all power and authority constitute “the very antithesis of democracy”.

Pro-Beijing regime in Hong Kong despite it having authoritarian imprimatur has opened some channels to fill the crack between Hong Kong and mainland China. One Country Two Systems Youth Forum, a think tank was launched in 2017 by Henry Ho, former political assistant at the Development Bureau, with aim to bring down the political gaps between mainland China and Hong Kong by bringing the youth of Hong Kong on the table to talk and carve a sustainable blue print for post-2047 era. The activity is apparently successful as a recent survey finds that 60 per cent of Hong Kong graduates of mainland universities are flocking to mainland region despite of a lower median monthly pay. This means, China is acting lenient towards Hong Kong, its relentless critic. China with its rising hegemonic presence across the globe after the soviet-collapse is helpless when it comes to its internal issue on SAR.  In fact, it is the perseverance on the part of Hongkongers to defend the preponderant democratic structure in SAR which is restricting China to intervene in its political schisms. Regardless of pro-China stake of SAR government, administration finds itself chained as Hong Kong’s constitution– “The Basic Law of Hong Kong”– does not permit violent reprisal from the police’s end as far as political resistance remains nonviolent.

 If the democracy has to thrive and evolve, its believers need to learn afresh from Hong Kong for invigorating the very philosophy and practice enshrined in the fundamental principles of democracy– “the use of nonviolent resistance as a weaponry”. This world might have advanced with scientific prowess to foster militarised masculinity but the fact that nonviolence is the desideratum for self-rule and free will must not be ignored. That is, as M N Roy comported, “free society can only be created by free men.”


This article was first published in the July 30, 2019 issue of The Kashmir Monitor.

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