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What is White Terror? The slipping of norms in Hong Kong’s flawed democracy

A friend of mine recently told me about her quest to find a country with the “perfect democracy” ⁠— a system that has fewer flaws than the others.

Obviously, the United States with their electoral system would not be on the list because even though Hillary Clinton won the majority of the vote, she did not become president in the last election. Also, not the United Kingdom because the current Prime Minister – Boris Johnson – was not even voted in by the people but by members of the party in power – the Conservatives. Multi-party systems can lead to ineffectual governments, and two-party systems often cause parties to oscillate between each other depending on who is in power.

So what was the most  “ideal system?” my friend asked me.

goddess democracy june 4 tiananmen vigil victoria park

The Goddess of Democracy at Hong Kong’s annual Tiananmen Massacre vigil. File photo: Etan Liam, via Flickr.

As I tried to decide from a number of countries known to be “real democracies” (there are only 19 according to The Economist), I noticed they all have slightly different systems of voting. I couldn’t weigh their defects against each other. What these countries did have in common however are a set of rights, norms and understandings that their governments and citizens adhere to universally. So to answer her question, I replied that if a country had democratic norms, in tandem with open elections, they are all equal regardless of their systems.

Freedom of conscience, rule of law, an independent judiciary are of course the main norms when people think of their rights. Then there are aspects less spoken about, some of which are not in fact laws but unwritten agreements followed by all: the peaceful transfer of power; honouring elections or referendum results; robust civic-society unencumbered by political pressures and personal favours; a plurality of institutions with a range of opposing views; a viable opposition; politicians who are accountable to the public and not the oligarchy, and a government that won’t use any means to threaten and intimidate opponents or the general population. Only by having those norms, can a country be considered as having full democracy. By breaking these norms, a democracy slides into authoritarianism despite continuing to have an electoral system.

For example, President Nicolás Maduro from Venezuela, an elected leader of a viable democracy turned the country into a dictatorship by violating those agreements. He jailed and exiled the opposition, quashed protests, threatened people’s jobs and social security if they did not vote for him. Recently, he’s been accused of torturing members of his armed forces to continue his grip on power. It is true he won a second general election, but Venezuela is no longer a democracy. Those who claim he is a legitimate leader because he was voted in by the people conflate electoral systems with democratic governments.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Photo: Kremlin.ru.

Until recently, Hong Kong had all the norms and a limited election system, which according to the Economist, made us a “flawed democracy.” The same category which the US is in. In fact, some scholars have suggested that the only place that has ever had unlimited freedoms but not a directly elected leadership is indeed our city — both under colonial rule and the SAR under the Basic Law.

But the undemocratic norms have been appearing in all sectors of society. Government organisations that should be neutral have become politicised. The business sector has been pressured to police their employees’ freedom of thought and the public’s ability to gather. Even illegal organisations such as gangs have been used to threaten the general public.

This is what is referred to in Hong Kong as “white terror.” A systematic attack on the norms without always directly dismantling the Basic Law. It is feared, with the implementation of white terror, totalitarianism will emerge from the background without the Chinese government ever having to send in the People’s Liberation Army.

An example would be the Chinese government requesting airline Cathay Pacific to provide the names of those who participated in the general strike and to bar those staff members from flying to China or even through their airspace. The company not only compiled, but they also went a step further to threaten termination of any employee who participates in illegal protests or express pro-democracy sentiments on their social media. Rebecca Sy, who was the union head of Cathy Dragon, an affiliate of the main airline, lost her job because of Facebooks posts about the protests.

This pattern of behaviour was then followed by the MTR Corporation. The Chinese government didn’t even directly pressure their business, but simply used their state propaganda paper, the People’s Daily, to write a critical opinion piece. The editors accused the corporation of assisting the protesters by providing more trains when needed. In response, MTR closed four stations in locations near a legal protest an hour before the event; hindering the public’s accessibility and threatening the right to gather.

Rebecca Sy Cathay Dragon

Rebecca Sy. Photo: inmedia.net.

The Chinese Communist Party has in effect infringed on freedom of speech and movement by proxy through private organisations. Without over-stepping Hong Kong jurisdiction, nor interfering with our legislature.

The fear among firms are so huge, without even Chinese government pressure, there were senior managers who tried to limit their staff’s participation in protests. In anecdotal stories, some international accounting firms requested their employees to unusual firm lunches held at the exact time as the march organised for their sector to support the five core demands of protesters.

But white terror has not been limited to the business sector, they have seeped into a civil service, which once prided itself as objective and impartial.

After the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union organised for its members and students to join the general strike on August 5, the Regional Education Offices asked individual schools for names of the teachers and pupils who participated in the strike, without stating a reason. Hinting at possible future retribution if people continue with their actions.

The Department of Justice had interfered with a trainee solicitor’s application for his formal admittance to the profession by demanding he explains criticisms he made on his personal Facebook page against police officers. This was unprecedented, and not part of the process of admissions. Alfred Chu’s application did go through, but not without public uproar.

In fact, it seems it’s possible that Chinese government agents have infiltrated society, working in extrajudicial capacity. Students from Melbourne who participated in protests in Australia were stopped at the airport after leaving immigration and customs and asked to produce their passports and other identifying documents for inspections by people who claim to be police officers but had no identification. The police have stated they made no such operation.

yuen long july 27 china extradition

Photo: May James/HKFP.

During a police press-conference a woman began taking photographs of journalists in attendance, and when questioned claimed she was ahead of a Chinese radio station, but unable to explain her actions or present a press pass. These events move Hong Kong towards a PRC-style of governance where people are watched by unidentified individuals who threaten them into complying with the government.

We have been clear with the five demands. The full withdrawal of the suspended extradition bill; an independent investigation of police brutality; amnesty for arrested protesters; for Chief Executive Carrie Lam to resign; for the implementation of open and free elections.

With all that has happened in the past three months, we need to add a sixth demand: for the government to safeguard and adhere to the norms that make our functioning but flawed democracy free.

What is White Terror? The slipping of norms in Hong Kong's flawed democracy