Sunday, August 2, 2020

Hong Kong: Suffocated By "Security"?

Hong Kong Summer 2020.

They say if you put a frog in a pot of hot water it will jump out, but if you put the frog into a pot of cool water and very slowly turn up the temperature to the boiling point, the frog will be dead before it realizes it's being cooked.

They teach that in "Oppressive Regimes 101" in Dictatorship Training School, don't they? And yet the CCP seems to have forgotten this technique, or they have no desire to use it while the world watches them cook beyond recognition what remains of the One-Country-Two-Systems arrangement with the great city of Hong Kong.

The hammer began falling almost immediately after Beijing's imposed "National Security Law" went into effect a month ago, when it became clear that there was to be no distinction between the newly sanctioned crimes related to "sedition" and acts that had previously been protected under Hong Kong's Basic Law as "free speech" and "free expression of opinion." In the first days, people were arrested for displaying or carrying this admittedly provocative banner:

Open support for "independence" had previously disqualified people from running for the Legislative Council, but it was not illegal simply to voice, discuss, or display it as an opinion. But, as of July 1, apparently, expressions favoring independence became seditious "speech crimes."

Even if one were to stretch the boundaries of plausibility and concede (in recognition of the mainland PartyState's jurisprudence of paranoia) that simply expressing the desire for independence on a sign is equivalent to inciting sedition, that would not be sufficient for the new order. They were determined to push back harder and much further on Hong Kong's freedoms.

Soon it was announced that the 2019 Protest Slogan was also illegal. "Liberate Hong Kong. The Revolution of Our Times" was commonly used in the anti-extradition protests, not as a call for independence or for overthrowing the local government, but for reforms that would preserve its distinctive system and institutions from the encroachment of CCP repression.

But explanations of meaning are fruitless. Law enforcement has been ordered to regard the 2019 slogan as seditious.

The "thought-police" are searching for even more targets. In response, some recent Hong Kong demonstrators displayed signs, placards, and papers that were completely blank. Their point was clear enough. So far, however, humor has not been declared dangerous to the State.

But given the current raging censorship, discussions of the distinctive historical and socio-cultural identity of Hong Kong are not likely to make the cut. One certainly does not expect to see slogans like this one in the future:

That puts it "negatively," of course. It's an angry statement, but there's a point behind it. A more positive expression (which you still probably won't see anymore) says it like this:

Certainly, the overwhelming majority of Hong Kong people are ethnic Chinese. They are descendants of Chinese people who freely chose to emigrate to a place outside China's jurisdiction, beginning in the 19th century.

Does the current mainland Chinese Communist PartyState have a right to rule them without regard for the heritage of their forebears? Does the PartyState have a right to erase Hong Kong from history, to have it swallowed up into a southern Chinese ocean port megacity? Does it have the right to suppress an established social realm with its own legal system, customs, and civil liberties?

In the olden days, there was a term for asserting such "rights" — conquest. Today's international community needs to pay attention to what is happening here.

"Hong Kong is not a place. It's a PEOPLE." In my opinion, this expresses one of the fundamental underlying historical facts about the population of this unique Southeast Asian city-state. From my own (admittedly outsider, but somewhat informed) point of view, I think it's necessary to probe beyond the injustices of 19th century Western powers and take seriously the history generated by actual local people on the ground. Many are not aware of the fact that "Hong Kong" was not an ancient Chinese city, nor did it have a distinctive Chinese history or culture prior to being ceded to the British in 1842. It was a rocky island inhabited by a few fisherman and an occasional haven for pirates.

I have no intention of crediting Britain's East India Company or its deplorable opium trade for anything, nor can it be said that the British colonial administration created the Hong Kong city-state we know today. The British wanted to set up a minimal port and trading station under the Crown. They did not find Hong Kong island particularly attractive and tended to neglect it as subsequent "unequal treaties" with the collapsing Qing Empire ceded much better "extraterritorial" sections of the large eastern Chinese port cities for their usage.

This was China's "century of humiliation," and it might be insulting to imply that anything good came out of those years, or deserves to endure. But Hong Kong has a very peculiar history — built by Chinese immigrants from the Pearl River Delta — that grew within the context of those times. Today's unique Hong Kong society is the achievement of these immigrants and their progeny (who speak Yue, or "Cantonese," rather than the standardized "Mandarin" of the most of the mainland), and others who followed them as refugees from the wars of the 20th century. They built up Hong Kong with the clear intention that it be a place distinct from mainland China, especially following the CCP takeover of the mainland in 1949.

Hong Kong became an international crossroads in the last century, and a beautiful and unique city (also with its own special problems). It should have been given a say in its own future. It was moving on from British colonial rule, prepared to claim and integrate into its own established identity the political and social institutions that had already emerged organically within itself. But owing to the pressures of international alliances and geopolitical and economic schemes, Great Britain betrayed its Crown Colony.

Without asking Hong Kongers, the British entered into a treaty to hand them over to the mainland Chinese government. It included 50 year special provisions for "domestic autonomy" (which would make no sense apart from the presumption that the Hong Kong people would continue to develop their own institutions). But nothing for Hong Kong was specified past the year 2047.

Optimism may have hoped that, at the end of 50 years, the people would have the freedom to decide their own future. Chinese Communist Party history, however, suggested that after 2047, Hong Kong would simply be absorbed into the homogeneous New China as an accessory to its grand development schemes. In any case, the treaty stipulated that Hong Kong was to become a "special autonomous region" of China, with its own domestic governance (at least this was the agreement negotiated between Britain and China, without any participation or radification of the process by the people of Hong Kong). Again, without its own consent, a "Basic Law" (a sort of "semi-constitution") was established for this unique civil society. The arrangement was summarized by saying that Hong Kong and China would exist as "one country with two distinct domestic political systems." Hong Kong's legal system, courts, legislature, currency, and civil liberties would all remain under its new "Basic Law." The arrangement would last 50 years. Guarantees of CCP compliance with even the letter (not to mention the spirit) of "One-Country-Two-Systems" were... rather thin.

This was proclaimed as the "liberation" of Hong Kong from colonial rule. But Hong Kong people could be forgiven if they felt more like serfs whose land was being transferred from one master to another. They also knew that the new master could not be trusted.

From the beginning, the Basic Law was a mashup, overwhelmingly (but not absolutely) weighted in favor of Beijing control. Pro-Democracy legislators were able to serve as something of a check on mainland power, along with the clear expression of popular will through mass demonstrations. In the last decade, however, China increased its zeal to integrate Hong Kong into its plans for economic growth (and political control) even before 2047. Hong Kong people resisted these efforts. Young people, even high school students, were especially active. They realized that the future of Hong Kong was their future, and they had to make their aspirations, protests, and voices heard.

Since 2014, the struggle has been consistent and the repression has increased until it exploded into the huge demonstrations and brutal police response tactics of last Summer and Fall.

The PartyState bided its time, or so it appeared. Some wondered if perhaps the CCP didn't know what to do with Hong Kong. But this year, after the emergence of Coronavirus delayed everything, the Party arranged for its "National People's Congress" (the annual legislative body it controls) to approve the "amending" of Hong Kong's Basic Law (again, without Hong Kong popular consent) by a new National Security Law for the region, that gave special criminal status to broadly defined acts of "sedition," "incitement to sedition," and other related acts. These crimes were placed under mainland jurisdiction outside of Hong Kong's intrinsic legal system. The new provisions have been widely viewed as gutting what remains of Hong Kong's civil liberties and, effectively, of its "autonomous status."

Benny Tai
As I noted earlier, in their rapid implementation of their new broadly articulated "Law," the CCP and its loyalists are going in hard and fast. They are also stirring up an overall atmosphere of fear and repression. Last week, Umbrella Movement nonviolent activist and pro-Democracy law professor Benny Tai was fired by Hong Kong University (even though the academic senate had previously voted to retain him). According to the BBC, Tai said that "the decision to fire him was 'made not by the University of Hong Kong but by an authority beyond the University through its agents,' ...adding 'I am heartbroken to witness the demise of my beloved university.'"

The next day, four students were arrested under the new "Law" for posts they made discussing the future of Hong Kong on social media (i.e. "speech crimes" and media surveilance). Then, moves were made to prevent the pro-Democracy faction from taking over the Legislative Council in next month's elections. Twelve candidates who had been selected by the huge turnout in last month's "informal" pro-Democracy coalition "primaries" (there are no formal political parties in Hong Kong) were disqualified from running for the Council. For many of them, their mere objection to Beijing's new Law was deemed by election officials sufficient grounds to declare them unfit to serve as legislators. Moreover, the elections themselves were "postponed" until next year, obstensibly because of "concerns over the pandemic" but in reality so as to ensure that every tooth has been removed from the opposition tiger before holding a vote. Indeed, by next year the whole tiger may have "disappeared."

None of this would be especially surprising if it were merely the ordinary workings of a dictatorship behind the curtain of its undisputed territory. At this point, however, Hong Kong is at the center of a ferocious dispute that cannot be obfuscated by propagandistic pretense. Beyond the legitimate claim of Hong Kong people to self-determination, there are indications that the mainland Chinese government is violating international treaty obligations that go all the way back to the original (flawed but internationally recognized) handover agreement. China is simply not free under international law to eliminate the One-Country-Two-Systems arrangement (guaranteed as a condition of the treaty at least until 2047). The insistence of the United States, the UK, and continental Europe on this is not a bluff (indeed, this is the only issue that has united — almost miraculously — the entire spectrum of rivals in the U.S.A.'s current dysfunctional politics).

One would think, even by their own logic, that "cautious pressure" would continue to be Beijing's approach (and one suspects that many in the Party and in the business sector would prefer that). Admittedly, it's surprising that the world's largest One-Party State can't seem to get a handle on this tenacious opposition movement. But the National Security Law, one would think, has now given them more than enough power to "restore order" (or establish new order) using what passes in dictatorships as "discrete methods," without interference and in whatever form they wish. However, the CCP is not (thus far) proceeding in this manner. They are not slowly 'boiling the frogs' of Hong Kong people's freedoms or the demands of the International community. Perhaps we are seeing (finally) a page from the Mao Zedong playbook, one that has a less subtle technique summarized by one of his favorite maxims: "Smash them!"

Or maybe the CCP has simply become desperate.

Hong Kong Internet humor, as in Xi memes such as this, will also become more difficult to post.

One sign of desperation is mistakes. Sloppy mistakes.

On August 1, news reported that arrest warrants had been issued for six Hong Kong expatriates — some of whom have recently gone into exile — on charges of "suspicion of [advocating? working for?] succession" and/or "colluding with foreign forces" to subvert Hong Kong.

Their names are Nathan Law, Samuel Chu, Wayne Chan Kakui, Honcques Laus, Simon Cheng, and Ray Wong.

According to the Security Law, China claims they can go after these criminals even outside the jurisdiction of the country. Perhaps they are hoping (ironically) for some form of extradition of the alleged criminals from their places of exile. That's not likely.

But here's where the whopper of a mistake comes in. One of the six, Samuel Chu, emigrated long ago from Hong Kong (before the handover in 1997) and has been a citizen of the United States of America for the past 25 years. In other words, the Chinese are claiming they can arrest Chu for exercising his rights as an American citizen.

Certainly, Mr. Chu is no friend of the CCP. He heads a lobbying group in the USA called the Hong Kong Democracy Council. But what were the Chinese thinking?

"It's such an outlandish claim that they somehow have jurisdiction over an American citizen lobbying the American government," said Chu. Indeed, it would be an understatement to say that a "diplomatic crisis" would ensue should the Chinese attempt to arrest a citizen of the USA for actions he undertakes in his own country, actions that are not crimes here (quite the contrary — Chu is exercising his rights under the US Constitution).

Indeed, in the olden days, this might have qualified in the practice of international affairs as a "casus belli" (a cause justifying a declaration of war). No one would advocate such measures today, but it might be worth noting just how much "fire is being played with" in the affair of Hong Kong. It's not excessive to call this "arrest warrant" a reckless mistake.

Response thus far from the Chinese government? <crickets...>

The underlying principle is boundlessly brazen: essentially, if they claim that they can arrest and punish Chu — an American — for using American free speech to criticize them in America, then what would stop them from arresting anybody in the USA (or anywhere else)? They could arrest me for this blog, though I cannot imagine a more frivolous waste of resources than coming after me. The point is that we have here a mockery of international law.

Or, as Chu has noted with more than a touch of irony: "We are all Hong Kongers now."

Chu is convinced this is indeed an expression of desperation by the ruling Party, that "they are scared of losing control. They know that if Hong Kong can continue to be a place of resistance, it threatens their control all over the mainland." He may be right.

There are some who think that President and Party Secretary Xi Jinping has overreached in his rapid consolidation of power since 2013. To attain such a pinnacle in a 100 million member Party like the CCP simply can't be done without roughing up a lot of people and making lots of enemies in the process. Xi has tried to cultivate a Mao-like status as a folk hero, which is not an easy project (and the plague and floods of 2020 are not helping it). Granted, the Great Helmsman survived a few "setbacks" (indeed!) but his stature as founding father along with his boundless reservoirs of cunning and ruthlessness put him in a category beyond anything Xi can aspire to. But since we don't know Xi's limits, and have no idea who (or what set of circumstances) might replace him, we ought not to have any fanciful hopes for the future of mainland China's Communist PartyState.

China is immense. There are no short cuts to understanding a great ancient civilization and the efforts made to govern it. I do not believe — however — that the ultimate Western philosophical import, "Marxism-Leninism," does them any good service. No amount of "Chinese characteristics" can extract Communist ideology's essentially violent core.

My question of the moment (and it is probably a foolish one) is simply: "Hong Kong has its own unique history, its own stories, its own sufferings. Why won't they simply allow Hong Kong to go its own way, as an independent city-state founded by the labor of primarily Yue-Chinese (粤语) immigrants from Guangdong (and others) who — struggling creatively under their unique circumstances of British colonial rule — forged their own distinctive political and social institutions, their own legal traditions, their own distinct culture, their own identity as a people entitled to self-determination?"

If this is what the Hong Kong people want, why can't it be worked out?

On August 1, Nathan Law — the 23 year old veteran student protester and sometime political prisoner, who had been elected to the LegCo and then unseated, and who went into exile last month — posted a statement on Twitter. May I point out that Nathan Law is the same age as my son. Many protest and opposition political leaders in Hong Kong are the age of my kids. They have carried themselves with great dignity under unimaginable pressures since 2014. As far as I can tell, they are not ideologues or rabble rousers (no doubt there are plenty of those in a very large and disorganized protest movement, but students like Nathan Law are not among them).

Certainly they are young, but they have shown singular potential and they will mature with time. Any country would consider such a spirited and courageous rising generation a precious resource. It would be a tragedy if they disappeared from Hong Kong's future. History is strange and unpredictable, but I cannot help feeling that — somehow — these kids will continue to make history, and to shape the future of Hong Kong in the face of whatever odds.

Here is Nathan Law's Twitter statement:

"Like all of you, I found out from news reports that I — along with five other Hong Kongers currently overseas — am on the wanted list for having violated the NSL. I have no idea what is my “crime” and I don’t think that’s important. Perhaps I love Hong Kong too much.

"Since 2014 I have experienced a lot of ups and downs: from student leader to a Legislative Council member, and from a prisoner to an international advocate, I have not for a moment betrayed Hong Kongers’ values and democratic aspirations.

"I’d be dishonest if I said I could’ve imagined six years ago that, by the time of Hong Kong’s complete destruction under Chinese control in 2020, I’d be so far gone, truly not knowing when I could return home. I was prepared when I left Hong Kong to be in exile; but this becoming a reality still disappoints, incapacitates, and frightens me. Indeed who can enjoy freedom from fear in the face of China’s powerful political machine? What we can choose is how to respond to this fear.

"For me, it’s with action: I’ve always advocated for democracy in Hong Kong, for sanctions by foreign governments against officials who stifle human rights, for an international response to concentration camps in Xinjiang and the collapse of Hong Kong’s autonomy.

"The arrests, the disqualifications, the wanted bulletins — these are indications of our need to remain active on the global stage. That Hong Kong has no place for even such moderate views like ours underscores the absurdity of Chinese Communist rule.

"I really love Hong Kong: its terrain, its culture, its vibe. But what I most love are Hong Kongers’ values and the future of its every inhabitant. What I now face is far greater than my own gains and losses. The price of displacement is what I’m willing to pay.

"At the same time, I hereby reiterate: My advocacy work overseas is conducted in my own personal capacity, without any collaboration with others. Since leaving Hong Kong, I have also stopped contacting members of my family. From now on I’ll sever my relationship with them.

"My social media will remain active. I hope, too, that all of you can stand strong to resist the white terror rather than succumb to self-censorship. I’ll also try my best to protect my safety. Please don’t worry about me. I still have faith in the future."

Nathan Law