China watches rooting out of democracy from Hong Kong

Taiwan must watch warily as China uproots democracy, inch by inch, from Hong Kong, extending its grip over the autonomous region. The removal of statues representing democracy and individual freedom from three universities is the latest step in this direction.

It began on December 23 in one of the island’s oldest universities, Hong Kong University, that houses one of the last remaining memorials to the victims of the bloody Chinese crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.

The 26-foot-high Pillar of Shame by the Danish sculptor Jens Galschiøt was quietly removed from the campus. The statue shows 50 piled up bodies “with anguish-ridden faces”. It was erected within the Haking Wong Building inside university in 1997.

The following day, Christmas Eve, when most students were away from the campus for holidays, memorials were removed from two more universities. The Chinese University of Hong Kong removed the Goddess of Democracy from its campus. It is sculpture by Chen Weiming, a replica of the statue that students erected in Tiananmen Square.  The Lingnan University of Hong Kong removed a relief sculpture marking the Tiananmen crackdown.

The authorities of the three universities had their excuses ready for the actions. Everybody in Hong Kong knows the real reason – Beijing is coming down on them for their commitment to democratic principles.

Only last week, a court in Hong Kong had given jail terms to eight persons accused of inciting people to take part in a banned vigil to mark the Tiananmen Square massacre. For the last two years, the vigils and silent marches were not held because of Covid-19 restrictions.

The move barely a week after orchestrated elections were conducted under Beijing’s shadow to Hong Kong’s legislature. The Chinese authorities had tweaked the electoral laws to reject the candidature of anyone with a history of protests. The authorities only wanted “patriots” to contest. They are those who do not espouse the cause of democracy, support the cause that the island is an integral part of the mainland and are loyal to the Chinese Communist Party. In effect, “patriots” are like the mainland citizens who are owe their existence to the party.

The elections were a sham, in that only “patriots” were the candidates. A whopping 70 per cent of the Hong Kong voters rejected the elections and refused to vote. The rest voted and the results were a foregone conclusion. For the first time, there is no opposition in the legislature. Beijing hailed the elections as a victory for democracy.

There is a school of thought that says the removal of the statues is linked to the efforts of the Chinese government to erase all public memories of the Tiananmen massacre. The government has never acknowledged the massacre and has never given out the details of the fatalities. It is only supposed that the toll was in the thousands.

The massacre, 30 years later, is still a taboo subject in China. Systematically, over the years, the government erased all mention of the massacre of the massacre on the mainland. No official literature carries details of it. There are no pictures anywhere. There is none to talk about it.

That is where the importance of Hong Kong comes in. The island is the only part of China that has refused to forget the massacre. It has consistently organised protests, vigils and marches on every Tiananmen anniversary to keep the memory of the government’s ruthless assault on unarmed citizens alive. In fact it is this commitment of the Hong Kongers that eventually made them stage protests to demand full democracy and independence for their island.

Thus, there is a reason for Beijing to be angry with the island. It is also the reason for it to launch an operation, from way back in 2014, to one day bring it under its control and disprove to the world that Hong Kong enjoys freedoms that mainland Chinese do not.

In 2014, after a particularly successful pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong, the Chinese government came out with a white paper saying it has a “comprehensive jurisdiction” over the island. It dismissed Hong Kong’s claims of having “full autonomy. The massive document maintained: “The high degree of autonomy of the HKSAR (Hong Kong Special Administrative Region) is not full autonomy, nor a decentralized power. It is the power to run local affairs as authorized by the central leadership.”

That kick started the exercise to remould Hong Kong in Beijing’s authoritarian image. The New York Times recorded the event: The 2014 policy paper signaled Mr. Xi’s rejection of the idea that laws and treaties insulated Hong Kong from Chinese state power. Many in Hong Kong had long worried that the city’s autonomy was brittle, but previous Chinese leaders had preferred to exercise influence indirectly and covertly. The paper’s new phrase, ‘comprehensive jurisdiction’, suggested that Beijing no longer saw a legal ‘firewall’ encasing Hong Kong.”

Between 2017 and 2019 the people of Hong Kong increased pressure on the mainland to give them the freedom to be a democracy. They did not want to be controlled by China. One of the biggest-ever protests in 2019 saw the protesters deface the Chinese national emblem atop a government office. Beijing took that as a personal affront and a challenge to its authority.

Clamour picked up for exporting China’s formidable law and order apparatus to Hong Kong from the mainland. It eventually ended in the promulgation of the draconian national security law in 2020. Under the law, any Hong Konger facing a case could be extradited to the mainland. Secondly, any accusation against a Hong Kong resident could be deemed seditious or anti-national.

The law apparatus shifted to Hong Kong. It has since settled into a new building and currently oversees law and order on the island, reducing the local law enforcement agencies to the status of minions.

Simultaneously, President Xi Jinping’s ambition to control of the government over private enterprise – interpreted as shifting the focus from capitalism to socialism of the New Era – resulted in the government crackdown on several sectors like tech, real estate, education and markets. Many big businesses in Hong Kong were badly affected. They realised that Beijing, not the free market, is their new master.

As things stand, the rich on the island have been put in place by brute force. Brutal laws have smacked the people into silence. Activists and other voices demanding freedom and civil rights are packed off to the mainland to face cases of sedition. The island is under total surveillance of the Chinese state. The legislature is a puppet body of the mainland.

It is not merely about forgetting Tiananmen Square. It is about making Hong Kongers share the same fate as mainland Chinese when it comes to freedom, autonomy and rights.