By Max Pendleton
As New Zealand and the world begins to tentatively recover from the crisis that is COVID-19, it is important to remember the wheel of time continues to spin even as we emerge, bleary-eyed, from our dens of self-isolation. One place that has been doing exceptionally well at handling the situation, surprisingly enough, is Hong Kong. With just over one thousand cases and four deaths, the city of over seven and a half million people with an average population density hundreds of times higher than New Zealand had joined the rest of the world in self-isolation. For the first time in over a year, the protests that have busied Hong Kong’s street came to an end, albeit briefly.
Hong Kong is now loosening isolation restrictions, and the quiet has only seemed to reinvigorate the anger and resentment of the protestors, who have taken back to the streets in undiminished furore. In many ways, Hong Kong has always been the testing ground for Chinese-West interactions, and the current protests happening in the city across the sea embody many concerns and fears the West has about the upcoming new superpower. How will China deal with democracy given the chance? How willing is China to compromise? And what does this say about democracy in an increasingly authoritarian world?
The Basic Law of Hong Kong
Hong Kong has a unique constitutional status. Once a colony of imperial Britain, it was returned to China in 1997. The process was not total, and Hong Kong is in something of a transitionary period known as ‘one country, two systems’. This means that until 2047 the Hong Kong legal and political system will remain independent from China’s, and it will be able to enjoy a high level of autonomy. This is known as the Basic Law of Hong Kong and effectively serves as a constitution for the city.
Hong Kong has its own independent legislative body, the Legislative Council of Hong Kong (LegCo). While LegCo’s members are voted into power via geographical constituencies, only half of the seats are decided by popular vote. The rest of the seats are decided by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). There have been a series of protests in Hong Kong for greater transparency and democratic rights. The most famous of these are the protests that began in 2019 and continue today, in response to a bill that would allow the extradition of suspected criminals from Hong Kong to China so that they may be tried in China. Outside of populist outrage, academic consensus seemed to denounce the law as well. Professor Albert Chen, a known ‘Beijing-friendly’ academic, had called for at least more safeguards and thought the bill clearly contravened the Basic Law.
For a long time, the courts of Hong Kong were arguably Hong Kong’s greatest constitutional strength. As robust as any court system found in a Western democracy, Hong Kong cases are even taught at the University of Auckland as relevant law; a reflection of how comparable the system is to ours. Given the prestige of these courts, there have been a number of concerning developments.
During the protests, people had begun to wear masks to protect against germs, conceal their identity and potentially avoid persecution. In response to the perceived threat of continuing civil unrest that increasingly disrupts city life, the Hong Kong government implemented colonial-era emergency powers to ban the use of masks at public gatherings. The regulation was criticised for its ambiguity and struck down in the High Court of Hong Kong for being incompatible with the Basic Law, as it gave disproportionate power to the Chief Executive. In response, the CCP issued a statement stating it had sole authority to rule on constitutional matters in Hong Kong, ultimately condemning the decision. The Court of Appeal upheld the ruling, but there are reports of rumours that the Chief Justice of the Final Court of Appeal is being pressured into ruling in the Hong Kong government’s favour if it is appealed to that stage, which is likely. LegCo made no moves to withdraw the bill during the COVID-19 crisis, despite the fact Hong Kong’s familiarity with anti-virus measures, particularly masks, was one of the main reasons it was able to keep the virus contained so well.
While the Court of Appeal decision was a victory for protestors, not all cases are going that way. In the case of a man who had concealed two knives on his person and attacked three people, hospitalising them and leaving them in critical condition, the judge spoke for the defendant, saying that he was a victim himself of the chaos the protests had created, and it was understandable for him to lose control of himself in this way. The judge acknowledged that such views bore no relevance to his sentence. The stabber was sentenced to forty-five months.
Another case of particular infamy is about a woman who ‘assaulted a policeman with her breast’. While the facts are unclear, the crux of the case is whether a police officer had molested the woman at a protest, or if the woman was merely claiming so to defame the officer. The court ruled it was the latter, the judgment turning on the concept that she was essentially using her breast to assault the officer. The event sparked its own sub-movement of protests under the hashtag ‘#反對女性胸部被視為攻擊性武器’ (‘in opposition to the female breast being considered an offensive weapon’).
“We Serve with Pride and Care”
The police force of Hong Kong was once highly beloved, as they had made Hong Kong one of the safest places to live in the world. Now, they are almost universally feared. There are reports that the Triads (Hong Kong gangsters) were conspicuously attacking pro-democracy parties, while the police turned a blind eye.
Pro-democracy politicians have been arrested. Fifteen activists, all of which are considered high profile democracy figures, were arrested on the charge they were organising unlawful assemblies. Of particular note was Martin Lee QC, the founder of Hong Kong’s democratic party. The UN has said they are ‘following closely’ the cases against them.
A Vision of Democracy’s Future
For a long time, Hong Kong was the ‘gateway to China’. Now, Hong Kong has become China’s gateway to the rest of the world, as it hopes to remodel an image of Western democracy to its own designs. Hong Kong is a testbed for dismantling democracy: protests ignored, votes made inconsequential, courts compromised, and activists quietly taken aside. What Hongkongers are more than aware of right now is that the battle they fight extends beyond being able to enjoy a proper democracy for another twenty-seven years. This is an ideological conflict between authoritarianism and democracy. Both protestors and China are trying to achieve some kind of outcome to secure the legitimacy of a post-2047 future.
International views of China continue to fluctuate. Despite the persisting human rights abuses and disinterest in democracy, opposition against China has been tentative. China is not just a burgeoning superpower, it’s an incredibly large market that every country’s economy wants to benefit from. China is now New Zealand’s number one buyer of exports, and our economy is very much linked to the ongoing relationship. Tensions between authority and the people, democracy and authoritarianism, economic gain and integrity. These are the taut threads that bind our 21st century world, wrapping around each other in a cat’s cradle of compromise. Every action only entangles the web further. The world needs to take a stand and decide how to move forward, and that includes New Zealand. There can be disapproval without antagonism, an admittedly razor’s edge as can be demonstrated by the Minister of Foreign Affairs’ statements when arguing for Taiwan’s membership in the WHO. This is what it means to stand at the tipping point: to find the careful balance to push events one way without slipping into the abyss in either direction.