Distinguishing facts from propaganda during two months of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong is difficult, but important realities now appear clear.
China solemnly agreed to special status for Hong Kong in the 1984 Sino–British Joint Declaration. It promised a “high degree of autonomy,” and declared that democracy, the rule of law, and basic human rights would be maintained under the “one country, two systems” model for 50 years.
Beijing has systematically violated these commitments since the 1997 handover, especially in recent years. Its appointed Hong Kong government has opted not to safeguard its autonomy. This harms the city, including its estimated 300,000 Canadian residents, and the vast amount of investment that now enters China through it in large measure because of the still exemplary legal system.
Beijing’s 2014 White Paper on Hong Kong effectively dismissed the continued applicability of the Joint Declaration. It refused to honor long-promised democratic reforms in 2014–15. Some elected legislators were barred from taking up their office in the partially democratic Legislative Council. Some candidates were barred from running for office. Pro-democracy protesters faced harsh sentences; a political party was banned.
A proposed extradition law from Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam would have allowed the removal of persons in transit and political dissidents from the city to mainland China to face an Orwellian system without fair trials or judicial independence, and with widespread torture, forced confessions, televised confessions, and executions.
The bill brought a million Hong Kongers into the streets on June 9. Three days later, protesters at a second demonstration were met with police tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and batons. Later, Lam announced she would “suspend” the measure, but protesters demanded its complete, unconditional, and permanent withdrawal. A week later, two million persons took to the streets. Lam has since declared the bill “dead,” but her refusal to withdraw it completely has led to more protests.
Police brutality and political prosecution together form a toxic mix guaranteed to stir greater protests. The main fuel for the protests that oppose the extradition bill has been ongoing violations of fundamental rights and freedoms by Hong Kong police. Their dangerous and indiscriminate use of deterrents has resulted in serious injuries.
There is also significant evidence that the police have colluded with violent triad gangsters to deter protest and curry favor with China’s People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong, which wants to crush the democracy movement.
Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, says that there is “credible evidence” that the police have acted in ways that are “prohibited by international norms and standards,” and has called for a robust independent inquiry.
Protesters recently occupied Hong Kong’s international airport, causing it to shut down. A police officer set upon a peaceful female protester, provoking a near-lynching, as another protester grabbed the officer’s baton and started to beat him with it. The officer drew his gun, but fortunately no one was killed.
With Chinese troops reportedly massing at the border, Chief Executive Lam’s lack of independence from Beijing’s party-state, and the protesters’ fear of losing the little control they now have over their future, the situation is highly volatile. Everything feasible must be attempted to dissuade Beijing from storming Hong Kong.
Much of the world that has independent media appears to be now watching Hong Kong intently. There have been violations of press freedom, as journalists have been targeted. “Rioting” charges are being used against protesters as a deterrent. Injustice, violence, and hatred will only produce more of each. Protesters have won hearts and minds around the world, but such support could be lost quickly if they engage in systematic violence. The widely viewed public apologies from the airport protesters for disrupting travelers was a good first initiative.
Hong Kong’s Lam and other officials must also reflect on their actions that led to the situation. Failure to listen and defend the quest of most residents for democratic institutions in Hong Kong is ultimately responsible. Above all, both sides now need to step back and seek an immediately peaceful way to move toward a serious dialogue about political reform.
David Kilgour, a lawyer by profession, served in Canada’s House of Commons for almost 27 years. In Jean Chretien’s cabinet, he was secretary of state (Africa and Latin America) and secretary of state (Asia-Pacific). He is the author of several books and co-author with David Matas of “Bloody Harvest: The Killing of Falun Gong for Their Organs.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.