- 27 Jul 17
The 2014 Umbrella Movement was a watershed moment in Hong Kong, as protesters took to the streets to protest against Chinese interference in the electoral process there. Since then, there has been an alarming deterioration in relations. This is a special report from Hong Kong native, Natalie Ng.
In Ireland, most people’s main point of reference for the current political situation in Hong Kong stems from the Umbrella Movement, which kicked off on September 28, 2014. It was a scenario which no doubt resonated strongly for Irish people, with citizens of a small country rising up in revolt against their more powerful neighbours.
After being denied the democracy promised by China time and again, the “decision” – the Orwellian term for interference in the Hong Kong electoral process – by the Chinese legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC), had once more snatched away any chance of Hong Kong having universal suffrage.
As a native of Hong Kong, I had a direct insight into the anger on the ground. The sense of betrayal ran high: protesters occupied the business district and shopping centres in Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mongkok for over two months.
Named after the umbrellas that protesters held to shield themselves against the police’s pepper spray and tear-gas bombs, the Umbrella Movement – which has remained largely peaceful and orderly – made numerous international headlines.
The scenes were dramatic. Fully 87 canisters of tear gas were thrown by the police. They loaded their guns and threatened to shoot – and plenty of peaceful protesters were arrested outside the Legislative Council. The unreasonable and disproportionate use of violence by the police force, sanctioned by the HKSAR government, angered the public and escalated the conflict even more.
It has turned Hong Kong into a divided community. The government claimed the democratic camp was trying to stir up social unrest. Some people were led to believe the Umbrella Movement was nothing more than one long riot, with the sole aim of disturbing the social order. As things progressed, divisions emerged in the democratic camp as well, with some seeking full independence for Hong Kong.
On a more positive note, the impact of the Umbrella Movement is still with us. It reminds us that we have to stand up for the guarantees in the Basic Law – Hong Kong’s constitutional document. We have to fight for the democracy and the rights it promises
Hong Kong, of course, has always been linked with mainland China, even before the 1997 handover by the UK. The infamous June Fourth Incident in 1989 sparked the largest political action in our history: a million people took to the street in support of the Beijing Students in the Tiananmen Square Incident.
In accordance with “One Country, Two Systems”, which is promised in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Chinese enforcement agencies do not have any part to play in administration. Aside from ruling our affairs with a “high degree of autonomy” except in foreign and defense affairs, “the socialist system and policies shall not be practiced in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.” The arrangement gives Hong Kong the hope of electoral freedom denied by British rule before.
That said, the promised universal suffrage in 2007-2008, as stated in the Basic Law formulated in 1990, has been repeatedly pushed back by the NPC. Freedom, democracy, rule of law, human rights, transparency and free markets are the core values of Hong Kong. Yet during the governorship of our last Chief Executive, Hong Kong went through a critical five-years, when the promised democratic development was not fulfilled – and core values of Hong Kong were threatened in ways never seen before.
Before the annual July 1 march this year, the NPC Standing Committee member Zhang Dejiang publicly stated that, “The Central Government has full authority over the special administrative region’s development.” The separation of power was no more.
He even went as far as to describe the law as “a strong legal weapon”, completely undermining the credibility of law. A spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry publicly told reporters that the Sino-British joint declaration guaranteeing Hong Kong’s way of life for 50 years, “was a historical document that no longer had any practical significance.” The Central Government is determined to have its own way with Hong Kong people. This leads to a lot of anger on the ground. The censorship of press freedom can be seen in the extrajudicial Causeway Bay bookshop incident – Beijing’s abduction of publishers and a businessman from Hong Kong, which sparked a furious reaction in Hong Kong. Lam Wing-kee, the owner of the bookshop told Time, “It was a blatant violation of one country, two systems.”
Indeed, only a few local newspapers are truly independent. The autonomy and freedom that the older generations have fought so hard to preserve are now under serious threat. In addition, the infiltration of Hong Kong’s judicial independence is apparent.
The Basic Law was interpreted without going through the Court of Final Appeal four times during the five-year governorship of Leung Chun Yin. Thus, elected Hong Kong leaders were removed by Beijing’s interpretation of the Basic Law.
Li Kwok-nang, Hong Kong’s first chief justice after 1997, told the South China Morning Post earlier this year, “I have to say that an interpretation [of the Basic Law] in those circumstances would have a negative impact on at least the public perception of judicial independence.”
Arguing in favour of holding onto the “one country, two systems” model, he continued, “We should remain a unique corner of China with our own core values. We should forever remain a vibrant society which is pluralistic, compassionate, and concerned with social justice.”
The high profile interference of the Central Government in local affairs over the past five years is more than frustrating: it is infuriating. The Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government does not fulfil its duty as a representative; instead, they continually intervene in regional affairs, undermining the integrity of the system.
Another example of the Central Government’s oppressive tendencies is the imprisonment of pro bono lawyers in China, including Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiao Bao – who passed away on July 13, aged 61, having spent the last eight years of his life as a prisoner of conscience.
I cannot speak for all the young people in our city. However, I believe most would agree that the government has a constitutional duty to meet the minimal demand of the people. We want a civilised society which meets the international standard – where our rights and freedoms are secured. Most people in Hong Kong identify themselves as Hong-Konger and not Chinese. We share a mistrust of the Central Government and this definitely does not come from nowhere.
Everything hinges on our newly ‘elected’ chief executive, Carrie Lam, who arrived in office in March amid the inevitable claims of meddling from China. Unfortunately, this latest development does not bode well for the short-term future.
Despite China’s increased cultural and economic openness in the 21st century, in certain respects, its politically oppressive streak remains as strong as ever. If not stronger. That, at least, is the feeling in Hong Kong.