Democracy in Hong Kong is Disappearing


An empty street in Hong Kong (Unknown/Wikimedia Commons).

On September 24, Hong Kong’s government took the unprecedented step of banning the Hong Kong National Party, a pro-independence party, on grounds of national security. Hong Kong’s Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu argued that the party could motivate “violence and public disorder,” and possibly even “armed revolution.” Lee’s claims deserve little credence. HKNP has never taken a violent action or made any preparations to do so – even protests in reaction to the ban remained entirely peaceful. The ban is transparently about much more than preserving Hong Kong’s place under China. It is part of continued attempts, directly or indirectly from the Chinese government, to debilitate and destroy Hong Kong’s democracy. The world should not stay silent.

Words from the mouth of a Hong Kong official such as Lee should be seen as words straight from the Communist Party in Beijing. Regarding matters of democracy or autonomy, there is little effective difference between the governments of China and Hong Kong. For example, Hong Kong’s chief executive must be appointed by China’s State Council, even after he or she has won their election in Hong Kong. Pro-democracy advocates have been barred from standing for elections due to an apparent incompatibility with China’s communist aims. Chinese President Xi Jinping has described attempts by those in Hong Kong at challenging Chinese sovereignty as a “red line.” Hong Kong’s equivalent of a constitution was agreed to by China under the principle of “one country, two systems.” However, this agreement only stays in effect until 2047, after which China is free to stipulate that Hong Kong must adopt its communist system. To prevent the chaos that could precipitate from such a sudden shift, China has chosen to slowly increase its control over the territory. This explains the opposition to pro-democracy advocates, even though Hong Kong is technically semi-democratic. Many Hong Kong activists have been jailed, and some dissidents have even disappeared, presumed to have been kidnapped and smuggled into mainland China.

It is China’s blurring of the lines between independence and democracy movements that is troubling in this case. There is a very clear difference between those who desire the universal suffrage promised in the Basic Law versus those calling for complete secession. It is little wonder that any government would not take kindly to calls for secession or revolution. This has been seen in the recent Catalonian independence movement, which many Hong Kong localists, or supporters of Hong Kong independence,  see as comparable to their own struggle.

Yet the Hong Kong independence movement is different than that of Catalonia. Catalonians live in a democracy, and so they have peaceful options by which to enact change. These options, of course, are not unlimited, and simply existing in a democracy does not entirely delegitimize Catalonian independence. However, the situation in Hong Kong differs because residents have few methods to have their voice heard. Hong Kong residents cannot petition their government and assemble as Catalonians did, much less hold a referendum on independence. China is making a mistake by treating an ideologically disparate range of activists as if they are one and the same, due to a perception that not doing so could initiate a slippery slope that will lead away from communism. Simultaneous action against independence and democracy movements is counterproductive as it leaves Hong Kong activists few options, increasing the probability of the outcome that China fears.

However, those in Hong Kong who desire change should not be so quick to jump to ideas of revolution. It is an unfortunate reality that these ideas are simply impractical. Even the most fervent supporters of independence should want badly to not repeat of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, in which Chinese soldiers murdered up to 10,000 pro-democracy protesters in Beijing. It may seem unlikely that the Chinese government would take such action today. Advances in technology would make evidence of such a massacre much harder to suppress. Yet China has shown an astounding ability to coerce other nations into ignoring its misdeeds. The Communist Party is well aware of the massive economic power they wield, and they have not been shy in employing it for various tasks, such as pressuring nations to drop diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Poorer countries are especially in need of Chinese investment and so are more susceptible to such tactics, but even European Union nations have fallen prey to economic persuasion. China’s military power is also formidable enough that the United States will almost certainly not risk a direct confrontation over the rights of a single city. Hong Kong could quickly find itself without friends.

Despite all this, Hong Kong is still not without a way forward. The city is one of the world’s major financial hubs, and this grants it considerable leverage in regards to China. Importantly, Hong Kong has been rated by the Index of Economic Freedom as having the single most economic freedom of any market in the world. Hong Kong’s free market has clearly been the impetus for its success. As China’s growth will necessitate continuing opening its economy to the world, the country requires an internationally significant financial hub like Hong Kong. While China does have financial hubs such as Shanghai, investors are typically more comfortable investing in areas with strong rule of law. Therefore, it would be rational for the Chinese Communist Party to continue to allow Hong Kong significant freedom, as the city’s economic and political freedom are intertwined.

The rule of law has been instrumental to Hong Kong’s success, as it grants predictability to investors and assuages fears of corruption. A continued crackdown on individual rights could drive away business leaders from Hong Kong, fearing government intervention in commerce. Likewise, entrepreneurs would likely begin to see Singapore and Tokyo as much more attractive options. China would be making the best choice for itself by allowing Hong Kong to operate with freedom as it had before. There is also precedent for such a decision.

Deng Xiaoping, the man credited with saving the Chinese economy and kick-starting its rapid growth, pioneered a similar idea during his time in power. He set up Special Economic Zones which granted more free-market policies to certain Chinese cities in order to make them more attractive for business and foreign investment. In a fully communist nation still reeling from the Mao Zedong era, such an idea was revolutionary. Yet it worked like magic. Current President Xi Jinping should take a page out of Deng’s book. Residents of Hong Kong who desire freedom must hope that Xi values economic success over ideology.


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