When you turn to this column today, the pro-democracy mass protests in Hong Kong would be in its third month. How long the protestors will man the barricades if and when China decides to strike back and how as it becomes increasingly infuriated at the mounting violence, must worry the ordinary Hongkongers and foreign business [...]


Killing democracy but when and how


When you turn to this column today, the pro-democracy mass protests in Hong Kong would be in its third month. How long the protestors will man the barricades if and when China decides to strike back and how as it becomes increasingly infuriated at the mounting violence, must worry the ordinary Hongkongers and foreign business alike.

Anti-extradition bill protesters attend a rally calling on the British and U.S. governments to monitor the implementation of “one country two systems” principle, in Hong Kong, China August 16, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Certainly Beijing’s attempts to cow down the Hong Kong people by continuously chipping away at the former British colony’s freedoms and liberties which then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping promised to maintain for 50 years from the time Beijing assumed sovereignty over Hong Kong started long before.

Deng promised so in the Joint Declaration, the Sino-British bilateral treaty signed in 1984 that settled the future of Hong Kong under Deng’s arrangement called “One country, two systems”.

But long before the treaty that was to be operative from 1st July 1997, China had begun to whittle away at the British colony’s liberties. In December 1991, two years after I joined the Hong Kong Standard newspaper my weekly column “Open File” carried a commentary headlined “Freedoms fast fading into the sunset”.

It had to do with the British and Chinese governments engaging in coercive diplomacy to force the Hong Kong Legislative Council (Legco) to accept what amounted to a breach of both the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law — Hong Kong’s mini constitution — by denying the Court of Final Appeal the right to invite foreign judges to sit on the bench.

Two years later, I wrote another column called “Off My Chest” which argued that the Hong Kong people had been sold down the river. They were denied recourse to legal redress if China violated the Joint Declaration.

Add to it the fact that the Basic Law would be interpreted by Beijing and the Hong Kong people had little say. The military crackdown on Chinese protestors in Tiananmen that reportedly killed several hundreds of mainland Chinese was seen as proof that Hong Kong would not be treated differently if its people stood up against Chinese authority.

One already sees Beijing beginning to sharpen its weapons with a show of military strength just across the border with Hong Kong that Deng promised would be allowed to exercise its freedoms and maintain its lifestyle and rule of law including an independent judiciary for 50 years.

That judiciary is now under further threat as one has seen happening in democratic Sri Lanka not too long ago. It is not just Hong Kong’s early steps toward democratic reform that has suffered since 1997 when sovereignty passed on to China. Sri Lanka’s much older democracy that has taken root has always been in danger of having its roots cut and power grabbed by those eager to stamp an autocratic style of governance on the country.

Whether the freedoms and lifestyle Hong Kong has enjoyed even under colonial rule and Sri Lanka itself has practised over the years will survive in the coming years is still to be seen. Would one succumb to Communist authoritarianism and the other to fascist and rightwing authoritarianism time will tell.

What has happened to Hong Kong and what is likely to happen if the Communist leaders strike back venomously are lessons the public must understand could happen anywhere not only under Communist rule.

Hardly had a decade passed since China gathered Hong Kong to its bosom when those promised freedoms set out in a bilateral treaty came to be gradually smothered.

With the architect of the “One country, two systems” principle Deng dead and gone, the new authoritarians who have taken control of China have begun to unravel that system layer by layer.

Here was proof enough that trusting political leaders to adhere to pledges faithfully made in international treaties and at election time is as ephemeral as desert mirages.

One thing is clear. China’s Communist leaders will not allow street protests however long they take to lead to political reform. The massive protests called the “umbrella revolution” of 2014 demanded “true universal franchise” after China reportedly reneged on a promise to allow Hong Kong’s chief executive to be elected by a territory-wide vote that is truly democratic instead of by a handpicked coterie of pro-Beijing elements.

With the Chinese Communist Party preparing to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, the current ‘paramount leader’ Xi Jinping cannot afford to let millions of Hong Kong dissidents demonstrate against Beijing on such an important occasion.

Those who have followed the happenings in Hong Kong and Beijing’s growing concern over the demonstrations that have brought millions of Hong Kong’s people of all ages and vocations on to the streets will have noticed that Beijing has begun to ratchet up its propaganda war against the dissidents.

The Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily, Beijing’s news agency Xinhua and the pro-Communist paper Global Times among others, have begun to blame “foreign hands” for stoking the protest movement. They have labelled the protestors “terrorists” and described the demonstrations as “riots” to bring them within the law giving mainland China leeway to use paramilitary troops or even military forces to act against the demonstrators.

But at least a couple of considerations are holding Beijing back: The memories of the Tiananmen crackdown which is commemorated in Hong Kong with candle light vigils and other anti-China events.

The other is the impact any military or paramilitary force will have on independent Taiwan which Beijing is wooing in the hope of unification. To President Xi the political and foreign policy repercussions right now outweigh any economic setbacks that military action will have.

It is well for Sri Lankans also to remember that it is not just Communist state power that authoritarian rulers will use to quell dissent. As one has seen over and over again, leaders of democratic and so-called democratic states have not been averse to using force by police or military units to strike down political opponents or those who fight for their rights. Autocratic rulers and their obsequious henchmen will see foreign hands behind protest movements. While they label themselves “patriots” and “nationalists” it is often those who wish to grab power and cling to it who wish to denounce dissent and not see the mote in their own eyes.

So often one reads in the local media or gather from the electronic media that Lotus Road in Colombo is closed due to protests, that tear gas and water cannons have been used, liberally it seems, against demonstrators.

Admittedly unruly mobs cannot be allowed to hold a city to ransom. But why are marauding monks exempt from the law and why is the presidential pardon granted to free the guilty, violating the real purpose for which the pardon is provided?

‘Democratic’ rulers could be as authoritarian as those in autocratic states. While Saudi Arabia can murder journalists such as Jamal Khashoggi and Iran can imprison a mother for no proven reasons and isolate her from her family, there are hundreds of other crimes committed in the name of national security and sovereignty.

Sri Lanka has witnessed the military shooting and killing one protestor and wounding about a dozen others in Rathupaswela about six years ago . Their crime was demanding clean drinking water.

Sri Lankans can only hope that such misuse of military might and political power will not be seen in our “democratic republic” again in the name of patriotism and security.

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