As Hong Kong dies, the world watches on
Image: Jonathan van Smit via Flickr & Creative Commons.

Since spending many years of my childhood in Hong Kong, I have always felt a somewhat familial connection with the region. With its densely forested peaks, bustling urban marketplaces and infinitely kind people, I called Hong Kong home for the best part of a decade. And so, on the 1st June, as Beijing’s new security law came into effect, spelling “the death knell of Hong Kong,” I prepared to mourn – just as any family member would before the imminent passing of a loved one. I know for a fact that so many others around the globe will have done the same. But, tragically, none of this mourning will make a difference. Instead, the world and I must watch while Hong Kong dies, right before our eyes. 

For the last 23 years, after Britain handed over Hong Kong to China, the region has enjoyed a level of semi-autonomy from the Chinese Communist Party mainland government. More specifically, in 1997 China agreed to allow Hong Kong to retain its unique laws, many very similar to those in the U.K, until at least 2047. Hence, Hong Kong has existed as a democratic state possessing political freedom whilst quickly becoming the centre of economic and financial activity in East Asia. In recent years, however, China has incrementally eroded Hong Kong’s freedoms and imposed itself upon the region. The latest and most dramatic example came on Wednesday 1st June in the form of a new security law. 

Law and Disorder

The newly enacted law, the details of which were not made public until its imposition, has utterly demolished precious freedoms in the region including freedom of speech, religion, association, and publication. The law’s alarming simultaneous vagueness and breadth have utterly frightening implications. It means “basically anything can amount to national security threats,” commented Eric Cheung, a principal lecturer of law at the University of Hong Kong. 

Potential sentences include life imprisonment and, perhaps most terrifyingly, the new laws even apply to those who do not permanently reside in the region. Donald Clarke, at the George Washington University Law School, wrote in an analysis: “I know of no reason not to think it means what it appears to say; it is asserting extraterritorial jurisdiction over every person on the planet.” Simply put, with this law Beijing has destroyed Hong Kong’s ‘one country-two systems’ framework and killed its democracy in one stroke.

Participation in protests, such as those against the extradition bill in the summer of 2019, could now be deemed worthy of incarceration. Image: Studio Incendo via Flickr & Creative Commons

Perhaps, however, what pains me most about Hong Kong’s current situation is the international community’s acute inability or blatant lack of desire to do anything about it. On the  2nd June, barely 24 hours after 370 people were arrested in Hong Kong (including 10 under the new law), a vote was conducted at the United Nations Human Rights Council regarding support for or opposition against the new security law in the region. Soon after voting closed, China’s foreign ministry and state media declared victory. 53 countries voted in support of the new law, and just 27 against. 

Amid growing American international absenteeism and China’s strengthening grip on the United Nations, the result of this vote is of no great surprise. Notedly, since June 2018, the United States has not even been a member of the UN Human Rights Council. But expecting the outcome of the vote is of no consolation for its sickening implication. Today, more countries than not are at least content in remaining complicit as they witness the blatant destruction of democracy and curtailment of individual rights in a foreign country. Indifferent, disinterested and apathetic, so many world leaders look on. Hong Kong dies alone.

Too Little, Too Late?

So, it seems China has set its sight on the territory and there is simply nothing the international community can do. Those nations that are against Beijing’s actions can only deliver empty statements and consolatory assurances. Britain’s promise of settlement rights for three million Hong Kong citizens is honourable even if few end up taking advantage of it. Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, was right to call the new security law an affront to all nations. One must praise European leaders for deploring China’s actions. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s pledge to ‘consider’ offering safe haven visas to Hong Kong citizens is similarly admirable, as is Taiwan’s announcement that it will provide humanitarian support to Hongkongers seeking asylum on the island. 

Dominic Raab promised settlement rights for three million Hong Kong citizens. Image: U.S. Department of State via Flickr & Creative Commons

Crucially, however, all these efforts stop short of what really needs to happen: the scrapping of the new security law and a promise by the Chinese Communist Party that Hong Kong will retain its status of semi-autonomy and democratic rule of law until at least 2047. The international community have very few ways of making this happen and, instead, Beijing will remain unworried about this huffing and puffing from the once-mighty western capitals. In a global order increasingly orientated Eastward, it does seem a lot like hot air. “I feel pretty helpless and hopeless,” a 13-year-old student in Hong Kong told The Guardian, days after the new security law came into effect. It’s not a stretch to imagine the same words circulating foreign affairs departments in capitals around the world. Hong Kong still dies.

If no longer a democracy, what is Hong Kong?

Upon Hong Kong’s now seemingly inevitable demise, what will be inked as its cause of death? ‘A chronic deficiency of political liberty and rightful self-determination’ seems the most likely diagnosis. Hong Kong has never really experienced the salutary effects of political life without shackles. It seems as though times during which control rests in the hands of external powers plagues the region’s history. First the British, then the Japanese and now Beijing. In this way, Hong Kong has always been unwell. Now, the world will watch Hong Kong – untreated and alone – perish. “Democracy dies in darkness,” the Washington Post reminds us every day on its masthead. Hong Kong’s, however, will die in broad daylight.