The anti-China extradition bill struggle in Hong Kong has entered its fourth month. Looking at the developments from afar, China perceives this summer’s popular uprising as part of an intense moment of localized upheavals that foretell a troublesome period of domestic instability.
Just as the mighty Chinese state constructs countless “vocational centers” for Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, a more severe test of its legitimacy has unfolded in the periphery of southern China.
Time is of the essence, because the failure of the Hong Kong government to resolve the crisis peacefully has lit the political torch that blazes in countless peaceful demonstrations from one part of the territory to the other.
Clashing with the riot police and thugs in almost every neighborhood, local pro-democracy advocates are reluctant to surrender to the autocratic regime led by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥).
Resorting to excessive violence against civilians, the police seek to beat people into submission. Mass arrests of pro-democracy activists have occurred at lightning speed, and many of those arrested are unaware of the absurd charges brought against them. The Lam regime has allegedly sent undercover officers disguised as demonstrators to disrupt protest rallies and authorized ruffians to attack civilians, including youngsters, in public.
However, these coercive tactics are unable to dissuade people from joining the resistance. The Lam regime not only underestimates the courage and determination of Hong Kongers, but also misjudges changes to broader attitudes toward China globally.
The never-ending human rights violations and regime-sanctioned violence have signaled the collapse of autonomy in post-colonial Hong Kong.
It betrays the integrity of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, which was supposed to guarantee that China would not implement its authoritarian mode of socialist governance in Hong Kong for 50 years from 1997, and that China promises to introduce universal suffrage in general elections for the local chief executive and legislators.
In reality, Beijing and its handpicked cronies run the territory paternalistically, disenfranchising Hong Kongers and creating policies favorable to the rich and obedient.
Faced with the daily cruelty of police violence, Hong Kongers believe that they have nothing lose in this political fight. No longer submitting themselves to the unjust system, they are more than willing to pursue revolutionary change within the current governing structure.
Coincidentally, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement — widely considered the first student-led mass protest in modern China — and the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. On June 4, Hong Kongers held a huge candlelit vigil, under pouring rain, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Chinese official crackdown on peaceful demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Furthermore, Hong Kongers have begun to contemplate the fifth anniversary of the “Umbrella movement,” which broke out after riot police fired tear gas at demonstrators in the financial district on Sept. 28, 2014.
Inspired by these historical movements, local opposition parties and civic sectors are determined to take control of the public square and assert their limited agency against the Lam regime.
Internationally, there are powerful forces that are sympathetic to the legitimate grievances of Hong Kongers. The territory is embroiled in an existential struggle between the Chinese model of dictatorial governance, aided by digital authoritarianism and military coercion, and the Western model of liberal democracy, supported by universal values and norms.
Western and Taiwanese parliamentarians have urged China to avoid using the military to slaughter Hong Kongers, like those unarmed citizens in Beijing in 1989. In particular, US lawmakers have seriously considered the Hong Kong Democracy and Human Rights Act to amend the Hong Kong Policy Act (1992), which was passed to treat the territory after 1997 as separate from China, economically, socially and culturally.
In light of the escalating crisis, the US needs a new legislative framework to govern bilateral relations. Opposing China’s refusal to accelerate the pace of local democratization, the Hong Kong Democracy and Human Rights Act, if passed, would bring China closer to honoring the principle of self-governing autonomy that it had promised Hong Kongers in the Sino-British Joint Declaration (1984).
In short, US support is vital for the resilience of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. Washington has identified the Hong Kong crisis as an integral part of its ongoing diplomatic and economic negotiations with Beijing. By re-evaluating the integrity of Hong Kong as a self-autonomous entity under Chinese rule, the US must play a more proactive role in determining the territory’s future.
Joseph Tse-Hei Lee is a professor of history at Pace University in New York City.
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