Sunday’s march was the first opportunity for many Hong Kongers to respond to last week’s revelation that the Chinese National People’s Congress (NPC) – the country’s parliament – will bypass the Hong Kong legislature to impose anti-government laws. radical sedition that could radically undermine civil liberties in the semi-autonomous city.
From the start, however, it was clear that the authorities did not intend to condone the protest, which had not received police clearance. As crowds gathered in the commercial district of Causeway Bay, they were greeted by an unusually large police presence and warnings that any protest would contravene city public order laws and social distancing measures against coronavirus.
Police in Hong Kong last year were heavily criticized for their brutal tactics, including recently by a former member of a government-sponsored group that reviewed the protests. On Sunday, it was not only the force used by the police – tear gas, baton charges and water cannon against unarmed, mostly peaceful protesters – but also the speed at which they deployed it. The first set of tear gas was fired within 25 minutes of the proposed start time for the walk.
By comparison, several unauthorized marches last year – in which hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated against an extradition bill with China, ultimately succeeding in forcing the government to suspend it – failed were broken only after clashes between demonstrators and police, often many hours after the first start.
The coronavirus caused a pause in the troubles earlier this year, but as the danger passes through Hong Kong, people are more willing to go out. At the same time, however, the police are better equipped and better prepared, and local authorities seem determined to eliminate any dissent before it takes off.
In search of hope
Writing in response to the anti-sedition bill, Nathan Law, a former pro-democracy lawmaker, urged the Hong Kong people not to be discouraged, stressing that they had performed “miracles” in the past.
But unless there is divine intervention, it is difficult to see how anyone in the city can block the bill. Lawmakers will resume debate on another law demanded by China on Wednesday, making it a crime punishable by imprisonment for insulting the country’s national anthem. The bill has taken more than three years to pass, through repeated tactics of obstruction and delay, and protesters plan to surround the legislature in an attempt to delay it even more.
No tactics can be used against the anti-sedition bill, which will be debated and imposed by the Parliament of Beijing, not that of Hong Kong, and will come into force regardless of what is happening in the city in the coming weeks. . Pro-Beijing lawmakers and city bodies have already lined up to support the bill, while the Hong Kong Police Commissioner said on Monday that the new law “will help fight the force of” independence. Hong Kong “and to restore social order”.
With its limited options, the city’s opposition is turning to the international community to pressure Beijing to change course.
The reaction to the bill has been overwhelming. Over 200 parliamentarians and policymakers from two dozen countries signed an open letter last week denouncing the anti-sedition bill as “a comprehensive attack on the city’s autonomy, rule of law and fundamental freedoms” .
Signatories included Chris Patten, the last British colonial governor of Hong Kong, six American senators, including Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and many British, European, Australian and New Zealand parliamentarians.
Later this month, the United States Congress is expected to decide whether Hong Kong remains sufficiently autonomous from mainland China to justify maintaining its special trade privileges. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the anti-sedition bill would “inevitably have an impact on our assessment,” and other lawmakers suggested imposing sanctions on officials in Beijing and Hong Kong responsible for this decision.
Historically, China has not responded well to international pressures. Indeed, part of the stated motivation for the anti-sedition bill is Beijing’s paranoia that Hong Kong has become a base for anti-regime activities encouraged by malicious foreign powers.
According to this logic, the denunciation of its actions by these same governments can only strengthen the determination of China and play in the story that the foreign actors are behind the troubles.
Nor has the threat of international sanctions or condemnation had a solid history in recent history. Sanctions can cause misery and death for ordinary people – cut off from vital supplies and hurt by the economy – but they often do not shake those for which they are intended to punish.
North Korea has challenged decades of being a global pariah and a crippling economic punishment for continuing its nuclear program, while sanctions imposed on Vladimir Putin’s Russia did not stop him from taking over Crimea. ‘Ukraine in 2014. China is far far more economically and militarily safer than either country, and can rely on strong alliances around the world to counteract any aggression by the United States.
“The United States has tangible options in its toolbox to put pressure on China. But after the long two-year trade war, China has encountered all possible American punitive tools and built its resilience, “said the nationalist tabloid supported by the Global Times. in an editorial on Friday. “China’s latest announcement has shown its strategic disregard for Washington’s tactics to pressure Beijing. As long as the United States dares to play its cards, China will play the game without hesitation. “
Protests against the anti-sedition bill will continue in Hong Kong, at least for now. Multiple demonstrations have already been planned or requested – although it remains to be seen how many will be ready to go out when the police have shown their willingness to crack down hard and quickly.
The commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre is also due to take place on June 4, despite persistent restrictions against coronaviruses preventing a mass rally for the first time in more than two decades.
Once the law comes into effect, and any criticism of the government’s potential charge of “subversion” – as many dissidents in China have learned only too well – a major chilling effect can be expected. There may also be additional radicalization of those who are already prepared to use violence, particularly among the separatists who may be arrested for promoting the independence of Hong Kong in the past. The increased risk of injury, arrest and imprisonment, as protests escalated last year, has diverted some, but that has not ended the unrest, and there is no there is no reason to believe that the new law will do it immediately either.
But the new law’s ability for Chinese state security agencies to operate in the city for the first time could see many protesters swept before they get a chance to take to the streets.
Already, some are talking about going out, a task made more difficult by the coronavirus pandemic, but not impossible. Last year, two protesters wanted for riot were granted asylum in Germany, and pressure is already mounting in the UK for Westminster to do something to protect its former colonial citizens.
Taiwan, where sympathy demonstrations were held to support Hong Kong this weekend, has long been a destination for those fleeing the communist regime in China. While the island currently does not have legal protections for refugees, its president, Tsai Ing-wen, promised on Sunday “to proactively improve and continue relevant support work, and to provide the people of Hong Kong the necessary help ”.
A similar exodus was observed before 1997, when China took control of Hong Kong for the first time. In the end, Beijing’s hands-free approach and respect for the city’s existing freedoms helped convince many of those who had left to return. Now, as China’s mood over its earthy special administrative region seems to have turned sour for good, they can question this decision.