It has been three months since China imposed the Hong Kong National Security Law on June 30. Authorizing the police force to trump human rights and civil liberties in the name of defending national security, the emergency measures have provoked widespread international condemnation and prompted demands that China withdraw the legislation.
Depending on one’s point of view, such controversial policies are either desperately needed measures in times of existential crises, or dictatorial manoeuvrings designed to accomplish the takeover of a dynamic civil society decades in the making.
Whatever the political considerations, China’s decision reveals an obsession with potential threats, both real and imagined, to the mighty single-party state.
Much of the pro-democracy struggle in Hong Kong concentrates on taking ownership of the political narrative. A great deal of media attention has been given to admirable individuals and the political choices they have made amid a worsening situation, but little emphasis has been given to how these choices can reshape the larger scheme of things.
At least two seemingly unrelated trends are under way to transform Hong Kong’s political landscape.
The first is the globalization of the “Hong Kong question.” The sudden imposition of the Chinese control has led to a deeper commitment to democratic localism among Hong Kongers of different ideological stripes.
Frustrated with China’s autocratic rule, many Hong Kongers want to do something about the futureless society that they see around them. Such widespread grievances have generated new activist energy at home and abroad, unifying democracy advocates and like-minded people.
Thanks to a long history of transnational migrations, the advocates are making use of human connections to coordinate their global lobbying efforts.
Deeply shocked by the scenes of police violence against peaceful demonstrators, Hong Kongers and their overseas supporters strive to do something to ameliorate the crisis. The proliferation of social media provides an invisible highway for them to connect and share information without being censored.
Inspired by Taiwan’s lobbying success, dozens of conscientious individuals are launching formal and informal Hong Kong lobbies in the US, the British Commonwealth and Europe. With little critical attention from the media, a number of Hong Kong lobbies are joining forces to add new inputs to the global discourse of US-China relations.
Winning a propaganda war against China is as important as seizing the moral high ground to gain international sympathy and support.
Founded in Washington in September last year, the Hong Kong Democracy Council is working tirelessly to lobby US representatives.
In a similar fashion, the Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong is a remarkably effective organization in the UK, urging the British government, EU member states and the UN to defend the territory’s human rights.
As things evolve, there would soon be more lobbying coalitions to focus on Hong Kong.
One immediate task for the overseas lobbyists is to rescue the 12 Hong Kongers captured by the Chinese coast guard during their attempt to flee to Taiwan late last month. The victims’ fate is as uncertain as that of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.
The second trend concerns the incremental erosion of unity among various pro-Beijing forces. The local ruling elites have been reluctant to accept moderate structural change, because they derive their privilege from the political “status quo.”
Several pro-Beijing lawmakers and their families have allegedly been sanctioned by foreign banks. At a time when US companies intensify sanction compliance efforts, these elites’ habitual submission to China is impractical.
US political philosopher John Rawls writes in his book A Theory of Justice that fairness in decisionmaking and negotiation processes entails a reimagination of one’s status beyond “a veil of ignorance.”
Sacrificing Hong Kongers’ democratic rights to appease China has become not only increasingly inadequate, but also dangerously destructive.
Only when the ruling elites choose to ally with ordinary Hong Kongers would the act of mutual recognition contribute to a cross-sectional coalition, thereby spurring a new internal consensus in shared governance.
In a post-COVID-19 world, the uncertainties that the future holds are beyond China’s control. Perhaps a convergence of intensive lobbies and power-sharing negotiations could help Hong Kong to sidestep the chaos and turn the governance crisis into an opportunity for democratic transformation.
Joseph Tse-hei Lee is a professor of history at Pace University in New York City.
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