China’s Hong Kong vision a test for world freedoms

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
A rally to demand the full withdrawal of an extradition bill in Hong Kong on June 16, 2019

When I was growing up in Hong Kong in the 1980s and 1990s, Hong Kong’s movies and pop music were very popular. Politics and human rights were not most people’s concern.  

Watching Wong Kar Wai’s movies and listening to Canto-pop songs were the common interests among young people when I was a student at the University of Hong Kong. Joining the annual Victoria Park commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre seemed to be the only noticeable mass participation in political activity.

Yomiuri Shimbun file photos
Candlelight vigil at Victoria Park in Hong Kong on June 4, 2019, to honor the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing

All that changed after the handover to China in 1997.

Suddenly, in my second year of university, we realized that things were changing as Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.

During my career as a journalist in the early 2000s, I covered many high-profile court cases in which pro-democracy activists, including veteran activist “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, were convicted of charges like “obstruction in a public place” for staging small-scale demonstrations on the streets. The sentences they faced were merely a few weeks in jail. Those activists were considered radical at that time.

In 2003, Hong Kongers shocked the world when over 500,000 people joined a peaceful rally on July 1, the sixth anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover, against Article 23, a controversial piece of national security law legislation. The July 1 march became an annual event for civil society in Hong Kong. Nobody at that time could imagine that Article 23 legislation, promoted by Hong Kong officials but then shelved due to public pressure, would be followed by something even more restrictive. The so-called National Security Law was imposed on Hong Kong by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in 2020 without public consultation. The Chinese regime was apparently determined to exert more control on Hong Kong after the “Umbrella Revolution” in 2014 and the mass Anti-Extradition Bill protests involving violent clashes between protesters and the police in 2019.

Following the National Security Law, over 50 organizations, including the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group (of which I was the first staff member and later a board member), were forced to disband as the red line had become so obscure that advocacy groups working on human rights issues in Hong Kong and China simply had no space in which to survive. I left Hong Kong in mid-2021 when my former boss Albert Ho, a prominent human rights lawyer and a former legislator in Hong Kong, had already been charged with “illegal assembly.” He was also later charged with “inciting subversion” along with other leaders of the disbanded Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Movements of China, which had organized the annual candlelight vigil for Tiananmen victims for over 30 years. He was only recently granted bail after being detained for over a year. Hundreds of other activists, including dozens of former legislators, district councilors and civil society leaders — many of whom are my friends — are still behind bars. Many are waiting for their trials.

Reuters file photo
Pro-democracy activists Leung Kwok-hung and Lee Cheuk-yan gesture as they walk to a prison van with other activists to head to court in Hong Kong on May 28, 2021, over charges related to an unauthorised assembly on October 1, 2019.

We could not imagine that Hong Kong would become so restrictive so soon even when we envisioned the situation after the handover. Like many, we naively believed the Chinese government’s promise of “One Country, Two Systems” and “no change for 50 years.” Most people, including myself, were so optimistic that we believed we could do something to maintain the freedoms we enjoyed. We even did whatever we could to show our solidarity with activists, human rights lawyers and nongovernment organizations in China. Human rights advocates in China, whom I got to know through my work with various local and international NGOs, repeatedly told me how they appreciated the variety of support we gave them from Hong Kong. All of them told me how sad they felt for us when they saw how the Chinese government destroyed our free society in Hong Kong.

About 10 years ago, when I accompanied some Chinese human rights lawyers to observe court hearings in Hong Kong, they were impressed by how much the defense lawyers could do for their clients. They were amazed that defense lawyers could cross-examine prosecution witnesses and call defense witnesses. They were touched to see the vibrant civil society activities in Hong Kong, and they would even join some of the mass demonstrations there. They were so envious of Hong Kong’s legal aid system and the operations of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, the Ombudsman and other key institutions to ensure checks and balances. “Hong Kong is our future. Without Hong Kong, the situation would be even worse” was the kind of comment they would share with us after witnessing the freedoms we enjoyed. All of those are gone now. Now, the same group of Chinese lawyers are lamenting the darkness they will continue to endure, as even Hong Kong has fallen to become so much like a mainland city.

Reuters file photo
Police officers stand guard at Victoria Park, where the annual candlelight vigil used to be held, in Hong Kong on June 4, 2022, on the 33rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

When I went to the U.K. last year and then came to Tokyo in May this year, I could finally feel what some of the Chinese human rights lawyers and human rights activists told me they felt when they first visited Hong Kong: “the breath of freedom.” I didn’t need to worry about my safety when I worked on human rights issues in Hong Kong in the past. I used to ask our activist friends in China to take care for their own safety. Ironically, all of my mainland activist friends are now asking me to be careful.

The tough lesson we Hong Kongers have learned is that we should never take it for granted that we will always enjoy our freedoms. China’s influence might not seem to immediately affect Japan, but China’s clear attempt to challenge universal values like democracy and human rights is manifested in its international ambitions.

If China succeeds in promoting its repressive approach on Hong Kong, it will push further its agenda to claim that it can maintain a successful economy with a regressive and restrictive model. That will eventually challenge the global norms of political economy and democracy.

Japan and other democratic countries should be more alert than ever and uphold their commitment to promoting the universal values of democracy and human rights and speak up for affected communities, including Hong Kongers.

Patrick Poon

Patrick Poon is a visiting researcher at the Institute of Comparative Law of Meiji University in Tokyo.