Many Hong Kong young people participated in Umbrella Movement in 2014. Photo: Asia Times

Ahead of its 1997 return to China, Hong Kong was the center of the universe. Freedom vs Communism, the sun setting on the British Empire, a skyrocketing stock market, dim sum: Hong Kong had it all, and anybody who was anybody had to be there.

Thousands of media members swarmed the city to record the historic change in sovereignty. A political scientist from the US felt a professional mandate to witness the transition from freedom to buffered authoritarianism, but what meant most to him was seeing Grace Jones poolside at the Peninsula Hotel.

The 1984 Sino-British Declaration, an international treaty lodged with the United Nations, and the Basic Law accompanying the handover promise Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy” with its “way of life … unchanged for 50 years.” Deng Xiaoping termed the arrangement “one country, two systems.” But after the handover spectacle, the city of 7.5 million faded from the global spotlight and China nipped away at Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Demanding promised free elections to choose city leaders, Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement shut down key downtown areas for 79 days, prompting police attacks on unarmed demonstrators and jailing of protest organizers. The UK, US, UN and other supposed guarantors of Hong Kong’s freedoms reacted with lukewarm disapproval.

Beijing got bolder. In 2015, it arrested five associates of Causeway Bay Books, noted for racy tell-alls about China’s ruling class, books banned in the mainland but supposedly protected by Hong Kong’s guarantees of free speech. At least one bookseller claims mainland agents abducted him from Hong Kong, flagrantly violating the Basic Law. Foreign diplomats expressed concern.

Since then, mainland authorities have pressured Hong Kong institutions that enjoy latitude beyond what the Communist Party of China tolerates on the mainland, including the education, civil service and legal systems. Six duly elected pro-democracy legislators were expelled for improperly taking their oaths of office. Foreign governments took little notice.

Last year’s proposed extradition law brought millions of Hongkongers into the streets, morphing into broad anti-government protests. Police responded with teargas, pepper spray, batons, water cannons, rubber bullets and occasionally live ammunition against unarmed demonstrators. Officers brutally descended on subway riders. Thugs attacked passengers exiting a train station, then a pro-Beijing politician congratulated the attackers.

Protesters reacted to violence against them. “The police have teargas and water cannons and guns,” a small-business owner and mother of recent university graduates explained on a downtown street littered with expended gas canisters. “All we have are petrol bombs and bricks. It’s still not a fair fight.”

Along with urging harsher repression of “rioters” and allegations of foreign forces inciting unrest, China insisted employees retaliate against workers who participated in protests, or even expressed social-media support for them. In the supposed freest market on Earth, Hong Kong’s de facto flagship airline Cathay Pacific complied. The world shrugged. 

Last November’s District Council elections became a referendum on the government. Turnout more than doubled from the previous poll to 2.9 million, 71% of eligible voters. The democracy camp won 388 of 452 elected seats, taking control of 17 of the 18 Councils. Pro-establishment forces had previously controlled all 18.

In the wake of the rout, Chief Executive Carrie Lam declared that her government would “listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly and seriously reflect” on the stunning rebuff. It was widely expected that Lam would reach out to pan-democratic politicians to try to break the cycle of escalating animosity and violence and repair the city’s shredded social contract. Foreign governments exhaled in relief.

But there was no attempt at reconciliation. Events in 2019 highlighted Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, and President for Life Xi Jinping hated it. Under cover of the twin pandemics of Covid-19 and global leaders respecting nothing but their own craven wants, China accelerated efforts to dismantle Hong Kong’s freedoms.

With public health measures precluding demonstrations, Chinese officials declared that they were no longer bound by Basic Law restraints. Beijing’s senior mandarin in Hong Kong claimed the right to interfere in local affairs and urged city authorities to quash opposition. As global pressure rose over China’s early sluggish coronavirus response, mainland Wolf Warriors ramped up rhetoric about foreign meddling in Hong Kong. 

Chief Executive Lam, embodying the handover promise of Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong, responded to Beijing’s challenge to local autonomy by arresting 15 leading opposition figures, including Democratic Party founder Martin Lee and Apple Daily publisher Jimmy Lai, iconic figures of the handover era.

Pro-government lawmakers used strong-arm tactics inside the Legislative Council chamber to end procedural gridlock and advance legislation. Their top priority: a bill criminalizing disrespect for the Chinese national anthem.

Now, China’s National People’s Congress has ordered appending national-security provisions to the Basic Law. Hong Kong’s 2003 attempt to enact national-security legislation prompted an unprecedented 500,000-person protest march, leading to the bill’s withdrawal and the resignation of then-chief executive Tung Chee-hwa.

Despite mainland talking points about restoring Hong Kong’s law and order, national-security legislation aims solely to expand Beijing’s prerogatives. It would expose opponents of Hong Kong’s government and China’s Communist Party to charges of treason, secession, sedition and subversion, potentially enforced by mainland security forces in Hong Kong. 

This frontal assault on “one country, two systems” returns the spotlight to Hong Kong. It brought protesters back out into the streets for the first time since January, met by riot police, teargas and water cannons. But it has not provoked meaningful responses from foreign governments. 

Since 1997, China’s economic growth, moving it to the center of global business, has raised the price of standing up for Hong Kong. Rather than leading calls for China to respect its promises, Britain has more often led the line of Western nations kowtowing to Beijing for economic scraps. Other potential champions for democracy felt comfortable following the UK lead. 

But Covid-19 and the age of aggrieved leadership knocked the world off of its axis. The pandemic disrupted global supply chains running through China, and revised versions will undoubtedly rely less on the Middle Kingdom. Beijing’s economic threats in response to challenges about its coronavirus response further encourage loosening business ties. Angry charges flying between the US and China signal a new Cold War.

Yet the free world remains oddly incapable of defending Hong Kong’s freedom effectively. After a lengthy silence, the UK suggested it could grant Hong Kong residents more opportunities to live and work there, privileges specifically denied before the handover. Hongkongers don’t want to leave, they want to stay and live there with the rights the UK and international community promised.

The US ended Hong Kong’s special trading status, targeting the city’s businesses, not Beijing. White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien urged Western companies to abandon Hong Kong’s financial sector, which employs 250,000 and accounts for 20% of local gross domestic product. These actions channel America’s Vietnam War strategy of destroying the village in order to save it. 

It’s left to Hong Kong to fight for its freedom, and Grace Jones won’t be back to help.

Muhammad Cohen wrote Hong Kong On Air, a novel set during the 1997 handover about TV news, love, betrayal, high finance and cheap lingerie.

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