The Murder of Hong Kong’s Free Society

Most Hongkongers of my generation can tell you what they were doing in the wee hours of 4 June, 1989. In my case, I was on a work bus returning from ATV’s studio at 3 a.m. The radio was on, and the first reports were filtering through of shots fired in Tiananmen. For the preceding two months I’d marched shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Hongkongers as a show of support for and solidarity with the Tiananmen students. I was not marching because I was a CIA or MI6 plant; I wasn’t paid. I marched because I felt then, and still feel today that democracy is the least bad of all political systems, and that China would benefit from democratisation.

My reason for believing in democracy is that I believe good government is founded on four pillars – the legislature, executive, judiciary and a free press to keep everyone honest – and I believe that voting people out is better than the historical alternative of killing them, not to mention the swathe of misery and violence that has preceded dynastic change through the whole of human history. Democracy is far from perfect – let’s not pretend that the world’s most powerful democracy hasn’t, since the 1960s, pursued a series of wars of aggression, often against democracies (Iran 1953, Chile 1973 to name but two) – but democracy is self-healing in a way that monarchal dynasties are not.

In Hong Kong’s case, the four pillars themselves are in a state of collapse. Since the handover in 1997, the executive has been led by a series of muppets whose major job is to devise policies they think will please or appease Beijing, irrespective of and often at the expense of Hongkonger’s own welfare. The legislature has become more and more stacked with Beijng toadies and the fact that it’s closure since July 1st has had no impact whatsoever is the single most damning testament to its impotence and irrelevance. The judiciary limps on, its independence hamstrung by Beijing’s increasingly unsolicited “interpretations” of Hong Kong’s constitution. The press is heavily self-censored, with many of the owners so craven to Beijing that their newspapers are little more than propaganda.

The pillars are in bad shape, but pillars are only as a strong as the ground that they’re built on – one doesn’t have to be a Christian to see the sense of Jesus’s parable about building houses on sand – and the bedrock upon which the four pillars rest is a civic society. In this respect, Hong Kong is in better shape than many a democracy. I have been moved many times over the years by the time and money that Hongkongers devote to causes: from gymnasia filled with happy howls of children with horrid, debilitating conditions, supported by ordinary folks there to help out as best they can, to a local hillside where an informal club turned a slippery mud path into a proper bricked walkway with a few pummels of bricks, a few bags of cement, and a sign at the bottom inviting people to carry a few bricks each to the top of wherever the staircase’s construction had progressed

Even in the recent confrontations, the protestors have been scrupulous about what they’ve defaced and vandalised. The targets have all been political: no private property. A friend who lives near a site of a recent stand-off observed one protestor about to torch a public rubbish bin. Others dissuaded him, pointing out that the smoke would, in Hong Kong’s canyon-like streets, invade the apartments above. The protestors used oiled bamboo sticks on a steep street to prevent the police coming up (that attempt must have been hilarious to watch), and, when it was all over, sprinkled flour on the street to soak up the oil so that residents wouldn’t be inconvenienced.

This civic life is, I suspect, what most terrifies the Chinese Communist Party. It is something that is stifled in China. I’m not talking about the round-ups of rights lawyers, the suppression of the press, the rubber-stamp nature of the various congresses and the concentration of power in one man’s hands. I’m talking about grass-roots, often apolitical activism. Whether it’s offering a helping hand for a kid’s day out or mucking in to build something the government can’t be bothered to do, the CCP model allows no space for a civic society. As such, even if the CCP were to empower the legislature and judiciary at the expense of the executive – and release the press to keep an eye on it all – the structure would rest on quicksand.

I doubt very much that the CCP sees it that way. I think their belief that the CCP is the sole way of keeping China both prosperous and stable is genuine, not merely self-serving. Only time will tell if they are right. But what the recent massive demonstrations have shown above all is that Hong Kong has a vibrant civic society.

That civic society is governed in part by the Societies Ordinance. This was a colonial piece of legislation enacted to ensure that triads (organised crime) remained illegal. As such, the burden of proof is on the police to show reasonable grounds for suspicion that a society has criminal intent. When the Hong Kong Independence Party sprung up, “criminal” came to include the notion of independence. This widening of the definition of criminal acts was further advanced with the Occupy 9. Otherwise peaceful – if angry – protestors, when attacked by police on the rampage, are now deemed “rioters.” The direction this is taking is clear; and with the resulting chilling effect on civic society, Hong Kong will no longer be free.

I don’t know, and no one ever will, if the CCP planned it this way, but the actions they’ve taken will kill free society in Hong Kong. If it’s planned, it’s murder; if it’s a happy (for the CCP) outcome, manslaughter. I march because I hope to prevent it.