The US Department of State released a report on the latest developments in Hong Kong under the mandate of the US-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, a congressional legislation that treats the territory separately from China over bilateral relations after 1997.
The arrangement is justified, based on the continuation of Hong Kong’s autonomous governance under the “one country, two systems” framework.
This report raises serious alarms about the diminishing freedoms and autonomy in the territory.
First, on combating organized transnational crime and regional terrorism, Hong Kong’s security and policing forces continue to cooperate with the US.
However, following Washington’s sanctions on the China’s purchase of Russian weaponry in September last year, China blocked the USS Wasp from docking in Victoria Harbor. This second Chinese denial of the US Navy’s request caused doubt about Hong Kong’s pre-existing role as a free and open port.
Second, striving to utilize Hong Kong’s special status to advance its global outreach and impact, China has played an influential role in dictating the territory’s political agenda.
Out of fear for national security, both real and imagined, the Chinese Communist Party leadership instructed the Hong Kong government to employ heavy-handed tactics in cracking down on pro-independence sentiments.
Subsequently, the local authorities barred a number of popular democratic candidates from seeking legislative and district council seats because of their actual or imputed political opinions.
In September last year, the government outlawed the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party for ideological and security reasons. In October, the Hong Kong Immigration Department rejected the renewal of a work visa for Victor Mallet, a British news editor, who hosted a public talk by Andy Chan (陳浩天) of the National Party.
Third, growing authoritarian control of Hong Kong’s society has jeopardized the confidence of the local cultural and business communities.
Controlling more than half of the territory’s bookstores and book publishers, the Chinese government’s liaison office prohibited the production and circulation of any materials deemed to be critical of Beijing.
In a survey of press freedom in 180 countries and territories last year, Reporters Without Borders ranked Taiwan at 42nd, Hong Kong at 70th and China at 176th. These developments exemplified a sharp decline in freedom of expression and the shrinking of democratic space in the territory.
When US Consul General of Hong Kong Kurt Tong warned of the rapid deterioration of the territory’s freedom and autonomy, pro-Beijing political parties mobilized followers to demonstrate outside the US consulate.
This ideological turn toward anti-Americanism was of great significance as the local ruling elites set out to replace the remnants of the British liberal-colonial order with Chinese authoritarian rule.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) has been faced with many internal problems and the situation remains fragile because of the pressure for mainlandization.
First trained as a British colonial bureaucrat, Lam ignored the legitimate concerns of pro-democracy parties and professional organizations, and the responsible organs of government.
Proclaiming herself to be above party politics, she made most of her executive decisions based on her gut and the advice of her conservative entourage. The result was a steep zigzag course in political affairs as Hong Kong lurched from crisis to crisis.
Lam remains steadfast on one issue: using the territory’s resources to support China’s Belt and Road Initiative. She is far too willing to capitulate to Chinese demands in exchange for her reappointment in 2022, but such action only favors the pro-establishment elites at the expense of Hong Kongers.
Facing such odds, fighting for democracy appears to be a lost cause in Hong Kong.
The next step would be whether the US and Taiwan would take the lead in supporting local civic groups and progressive leaders who are still working for nonviolent change, freedom and justice.
Only by doing so could they strengthen the global efforts to shield the territory from mounting Chinese pressure and stress.
Joseph Tse-Hei Lee is professor of history at Pace University in New York City.
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