Almost 23 years ago, Hong Kong was handed over to China with the promise of a “high degree of autonomy”, basic freedoms and the possibility of universal suffrage at some stage in the future. It was an experiment devised by China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping known as “one country, two systems”, and was supposed to last for 50 years. Less than halfway through that time, the experiment has ended. China’s legislature has passed a draft “security law” which opens the way to a complete ban on “subversion”, and could lead to Chinese security forces operating in Hong Kong. It looks as though China means to stamp out dissent.
For the first decade or so after the handover, “one country, two systems” worked, by and large. I lived in the city for the first five years and although I witnessed some very subtle problems, such as self-censorship in some media, in general Hong Kong was free, open, peaceful, stable and vibrant. I myself wrote op-eds in the city’s newspapers criticising the Hong Kong and Beijing governments. Hong Kong was a hub for freedom in the region.
Over the past decade, especially under Xi Jinping’s rule, these freedoms have been increasingly eroded. And then over the past year, Hong Kong has been plunged into its worst and most dramatic crisis in modern history. Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam probably never imagined where it would lead when she proposed a law that would allow for the extradition of suspects from Hong Kong to mainland China for prosecution. But that single act of political idiocy – compounded by her continuous refusal to listen to opposition from business, lawyers, the general public and the international community – sparked a confrontation that has ultimately plunged Hong Kong into a struggle for its survival.
There were glimmers of hope. In last December’s district elections, Hong Kongers voted overwhelmingly for pro-democracy candidates, and looked poised to do the same in September’s coming legislative council elections. Beijing is clearly terrified of democrats gaining seats in the legislature, hence the timing for its dramatic actions over the past few weeks.
Some in Hong Kong have said they will have to cut off contact with people like me, as the new security law makes “colluding with foreign political forces” a crime. Some, like the media tycoon Jimmy Lai, a Catholic, promise to stay and fight. And many may be preparing to take up Britain’s historic offer of sanctuary, announced by the prime minister last month.
Meanwhile, the president of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Bo, signed on to a statement led by Lord (Chris) Patten and former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind and joined by over 800 Parliamentarians and public figures from almost 40 countries around the world condemning the assault on Hong Kong’s freedoms.
Once the new law is in force, religious freedom may be more directly targeted – not necessarily with closure of places of worship as we see in mainland China, but by monitoring sermons and hauling in religious leaders who speak out against injustice. How long, for example, can the courageous Cardinal Zen escape the fate of some of the great heroes of the faith in China?
On the Feast of Pentecost, I went to Mass online at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Hong Kong. The homily was timely. “We need empowerment especially at this moment when we Hong Kong people feel more and more threatened by Beijing,” said Fr Gregoire Vignola. Let us pray for the empowerment of the people of Hong Kong in the epic battles ahead, and for world leaders to unite to defend what is now the frontline of freedom for us all.
Benedict Rogers is co-founder and chair of Hong Kong Watch