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Paradise or prison: Hong Kong is a city with an image problem, and a warning to liberal world order

by Gray Sergeant

Hong Kong has always had a global reputation but after a year of banning foreign scholars and activists, while disqualifying and locking up pro-democracy legislators and leaders, its image across the world is souring.

Once a beacon of global capitalism and a booming Asian Tiger throughout the latter half of the 20th century, Hong Kong gained a reputation as a global city. Both open and connected. Somewhere where East met West. Far from just another Chinese city.

In fact, it was separation from the mainland which meant that Hong Kong citizens could thrive while the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) spread chaos and brutality throughout the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

democracy hong kong

File photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP.

For those lucky enough to escape the People’s Republic, Hong Kong offered sanctuary and a place where they could built a future. It was somewhere with a can-do attitude.

While this wealth and opportunity was not available for all in the city, the idea that Hong Kong was a place where anything was possible was firmly cemented in the minds of many across the world.

And of course, many did make their fortune as Hong Kong grew ever more prosperous. Yet the rigid image of the territory as a financial centre obscured the protests and political battles which took place there throughout British rule.

It was not until 2014 when pro-democracy protesters hit the streets that the world woke up and saw Hong Kongers for what they had always been – highly political people. Their battle for democracy and freedom has been a constant – challenging one great power then another.

occupy

File photo: HKFP.

It is also this long history of rule from outsiders which makes Hong Kong a unique political entity. As well as being a mix between Chinese and Western culture, today it is also a place where a free society meets authoritarianism.

Hong Kong, and the struggles that take place on its streets today, may offer an early glimpse of Beijing’s clash with the liberal world order in the years to come.

Such insights may be invaluable with the PRC appearing less and less liberal while Hong Kongers are just managing to hold onto their precious rights.

The future of democracy in China and Hong Kong were put in the global spotlight during the Umbrella Movement 2014. Many could not believe the courage of those resisting police brutality and tear gas. Nor could they help but admire the young people who peacefully took to the streets to demand genuine democracy.

Yet even this positivity has been short-lived as outsiders look in at the situation in Hong Kong since. The movement to change Hong Kong’s rigged political system and achieve Hong Kong’s right to elect their own Chief Executive has failed.

Yet it is Beijing’s bullying and meddling which has really changed the face of Hong Kong around the world. Promise and hope in 2014 has been replaced by fear and repression.

Paddy Ashdown

Paddy Ashdown. Photo: Liberal Democrats.

Recently the former Leader of the British Liberal Democrats, Lord Ashdown, returned from Hong Kong and described it as a city “losing its self-confidence”. At the launch of Hong Kong Watch, a new human rights organisation based in London, he told the audience:

“The thing which seems to have sent an electric shock of worry through Hong Kong was the 19th Party Congress. What we saw there wasn’t a new China emerging but many of us believe an old China. A China which we have seen before.”

While China is unlikely to go back to the dark Maoist days of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution – things are certainly not getting better.

When Xi Jinping told the Party Congress that he’d never allow any group or organisation to separate any part of Chinese territory from China – his threat should be taken seriously.

The people of Xinjiang and Tibet, who have lived under CCP rule for many years and who are facing increased repression and surveillance, know this all too well.

The past few years has shown this to be increasingly true in Hong Kong too. Undoubtedly, the abduction of the Causeway Bay booksellers raised serious concerns about Hong Kong’s autonomy. What is more, it may have huge implications for academics, writers and artists who have never had to fear the midnight knock on the door.

This year, the ousting of elected law makers from the Legislative Council did away with the façade that Beijing, and its lackeys in Hong Kong, were ever going to press ahead with even the mildest democratic reforms.

The shocking barring of foreigners has also sent a chill down the spine of those looking in on Hong Kong from around the world. The refusal to let individuals like human rights campaigner Benedict Rogers or Taiwanese scholars Wu Rwei-ren and Wu Jieh-min into Hong Kong is a complete reversal for a city which once prized itself on its openness.

Benedict Rogers

Benedict Rogers. Photo: Facebook.

Fortunately such incidents have not gone unnoticed. The jailing of the Occupy trio sparked condemnation from international voices including senior British politicians, former ambassadors and lawyers. The turning back of Benedict Rogers caused the UK Foreign Office to summon the Chinese Ambassador.

But this does not seem to make Beijing blush. Nor do Hong Kong’s political leaders seem to care that such moves are damaging their city’s international standing, even when such incidents continue to overshadow their own domestic agenda.

In 2018, the ordinary people of Hong Kong will have a chance to show the world that Hong Kong is still an open global city by getting behind pro-democratic forces during the upcoming by-elections. But of course, the rest will be in the hands of the pro-Beijing camp and the Chinese government.

How many other political activists will be jailed next year? Will the last remaining abducted bookseller, Gui Minhai, ever be allowed to leave China?

How will China respond to criticism from international organisations and foreign governments? What other foreign politicians, scholars, human rights activists or writers will be blacklisted in 2018? Will Hong Kong become more closed off? Will it become more repressive?

Gui Minhai

Gui Minhai. Photo: CCTV screencap.

Of course this is only one part of the picture. Places, like people, have multiple and often contradictory identities. Like Hong Kong under British rule, which was both a stable centre of commerce and a place of political protest, the city today can still promote everything positive it has to offer.

Hong Kong still has many freedoms which people in mainland China do not enjoy, and has vibrant art, literary and culinary scenes.

Undoubtedly, this should be celebrated but as the ominous shadow of Beijing looms over the city this may become harder and harder – Hong Kong is a city with an image problem.

Gray Sergeant studied International Relations and History at LSE and since graduating has worked in and around Westminster. He regularly comments on UK-Hong Kong relations and can be found on Twitter at @GraySergeant.

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Paradise or prison: Hong Kong is a city with an image problem, and a warning to liberal world order