Hong Kong activists vow to fight on despite darkening political mood
Hong Kong (dpa) – At her political party’s office in Hong Kong's Wan Chai district, Agnes Chow is surrounded by campaign materials bearing her face and name, created for a campaign that will now never happen.
Chow, a 21-year-old student and founding member of upstart pro-democracy party Demosisto, was disqualified in January from an upcoming legislative by-election in March.
Election officials said Demosisto’s support of “self-determination” for the former British colony promotes independence from China a concept that to top leaders like Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the city’s highest ranking leader, is tantamount to sedition.
The government’s actions led to international criticism from foreign governments and rights groups, putting Hong Kong’s declining freedoms and darkening political mood back in the global limelight.
Chow, who was born seven months before Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, says her disqualification is evidence of the “invisible hand” of Beijing, which has been chipping away at the city’s autonomy despite promises of a 50-year semi-autonomous transition known as “one country, two systems.”
“I would say more and more Hong Kong people are [feeling] discontent towards the Beijing government, and they start to be [less] trusting of the system of ‘one country, two systems’ because the Beijing government and the Communist Party has been doing a lot of interference in Hong Kong in their internal affairs ... including our election system,” Chow said.
Chow and others see Beijing at work in the 2017 disqualification of Demosisto compatriot Nathan Law and five other pro-democracy candidates when they modified their oaths of office at a swearing-in ceremony.
They also see it in the lengthy legal battles faced by dozens of organizers of the 2014 pro-democracy “Umbrella Movement” protests and the 2015 kidnapping of five booksellers who sold titles banned in mainland China.
“They are trying to minimize the ‘one country, two systems policy.’ Previously it’s the invisible hand, but now the hand is so obvious to manipulate all the political movements in Hong Kong,” said Democratic Party district councillor Andrew Chiu.
They aren’t the only ones. In January, US-based Freedom House gave Hong Kong its lowest score in seven years on its political freedom index in part due to Chinese influence. In December, the European Parliament also condemned the “constant interference” of China in Hong Kong affairs and declining freedoms.
The issue is particularly sensitive in Hong Kong, which has long prided itself on its strong rule of law and political freedoms unavailable in many parts of Asia until the late 20th century. Now it finds itself on the decline as countries like Taiwan, under martial law until 1987, is emerging as the region’s liberal beacon.
But while upholding Hong Kong’s ever-shrinking autonomy is a daunting task, activists like Chow are still hoping to win the hearts and minds of the younger generation.
The 2014 Umbrella Movement, led by students and pro-democracy parties, was an unprecedented moment for Hong Kong and saw parts of the city grind to a halt for 79 days amidst calls for the direct election of Hong Kong's chief executive.
While Chow said it failed in its political objective it was still a powerful moment.
“The mindsets of Hong Kong people have been changed because of the Umbrella Movement,” she said. “They started to understand the kind of power of social movements, of occupy movements, and they started to care about the political system or election system.”
Demosisto will continue to organize protests and acts of disobedience, she added, despite the fact that Hong Kong courts indicated this month they will take a harsher line on punishment.
The party would eventually like to see a referendum on Hong Kong’s future, as the 1984 Sino British Joint Declaration that set in motion Hong Kong’s return to China was settled behind closed doors.
That is unlikely in the current political climate, said Professor Ma Ngok, who studies political movements at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Independence or self-determination is still only supported by a small part of the population, he said.
Pro-democracy groups, he said, will face even greater battles in the future.
“I think the strategy of Beijing is to nip [pro-democracy parties] in the bud and then draw a line at this moment that if you support so-called self-determination or independence you won’t be allowed to serve in the legislative council," Ma said.
"But if you don’t talk about this you will still enjoy some kind of political freedom to oppose the government."