The speed with which a rebellious colony can be brought to heel is now clear for the world to see, but watching it makes a depressing sight when the place is one where you’ve lived a large chunk of your life and those being crushed include persons whom you respect and even love.
The restive colony is Hong Kong, a city of nearly 7.5 million people being relentlessly ground into submission according to a Beijing-scripted playbook that mocks both the legislative process and any meaningful rule of law.
When the Chinese resumed control over the territory, they promised no changes in Hong Kong’s system for at least 50 years. What they meant was that once the national flags had been actually swapped at midnight, June 30, 1997, Hong Kong would pass seamlessly from being a colony of Britain into being a colony of the People’s Republic of China.
In short, when the clock struck zero hours military time, millions of people went straight from decolonization to recolonization under terms approved by China and embedded in the Hong Kong Basic Law — a national law that serves as the territory’s constitutional document, although it has never been ratified by the Hong Kong people themselves — not before the British sailed away, nor after China’s tanks rolled in.
China, of course, does not refer to the Hong Kong people as colonials, even though that may be the most candid descriptor of their position relative to Beijing. It prefers to see them as “liberated.”
In recent weeks, scores of Hong Kong dissidents sharply critical of this “liberation” have been either jailed, given suspended sentences, freed on bail or gone into exile abroad. These include former legislators, lawyers, academics, labor organizers, student leaders, journalists — including the publisher of the largest pro-democracy newspaper — and other voices opposed to the Hong Kong administration.
Many of those under pressure are people this writer has known professionally and personally over many years. Some have been sources, some colleagues, others among the guest lists at weddings banquets and baptisms.
Beijing’s main weapon is the imposition of a new National Security Law outlawing secession, sedition, subversion, treason and links with overseas political organizations — whatever that may mean. As this is Beijing’s law, Hong Kong courts have no say over it.
This law was approved by China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, a rubber-stamp body whose job is to endorse decisions already approved by the NPC Standing Committee, a supreme body-within-a-body under China’s command-and-control constitution written along Leninist lines.
The speed and thoroughness of Beijing’s assumption of total control over Hong Kong has been dizzying. Once the leadership decided that it had seen enough unrest, it cracked down using a host of preplanned measures for use when the time was right.
Hong Kong was my home for nearly three decades. My arrival there exactly coincided with the death of Hu Yaobang, one of the only mainland leaders whom China’s students viewed as incorruptible. Funeral tributes to Hu turned into anti-corruption protests and then into the pro-democracy protests that ended in the bloody military massacre at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
Radio Television Hong Kong later became my employer for 19 years. Until lately, it’s been a high-quality news and information operation modeled on the BBC — government-funded but run independently and with wide public credibility. Most importantly, the station played a key role in helping desperate people fleeing civil war and upheaval in China to find themselves a bit of hope and begin creating an identity of their own. China, however, does not appreciate separate identities, so now the station’s being reined in and turned into a propaganda organ under a director who’s a civil servant with zero broadcasting experience.
Pro-government forces who’ve long urged suppressing RTHK are at last being rewarded. The way was paved by a public consultation in 2007 on public broadcasting. The leader of the exercise, himself a U.S.-trained journalist, promised that the report would not determine RTHK’s future. This proved untrue. In its summary, the report found that while Hong Kong needed a public broadcaster, it inexplicably could not be RTHK. The station has since been twisting in the wind.
Putting RTHK onto a very short leash indeed is now in sight. What’s next? In all likelihood RTHK will stop being a voice for the people and become a mouthpiece for the government.
Some shows are already being axed, freelance producers are being obliged to pay out of their own pockets for shows that are commissioned but do not air, and an independent journalist has been punished in court and fined for using car registration files to investigate a gang crime possibly carried out by pro-government thugs.
Simultaneously, the station is now obliged to air a new “show” starring Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam four times a day. In it, she speaks with pro-China figures about Beijing’s newly tightened control over the overwhelmingly handpicked body that will choose the territory’s next chief executive. This of course instructs people in the true meaning of democracy.
This ham-fisted crackdown on Hong Kong’s freedoms is very painful to watch, even from afar. I cannot imagine how my longtime friends and colleagues there must be feeling. My heart goes out to them. Especially those behind bars.