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Updated December 30th, 2021 at 15:23 IST

China continues to increase clampdown on Hong Kong, decades after promising 'freedom'

Suppression of free speech, meddling in elections, jailing pro-democracy leaders, is the reality of China’s so-called promised ‘freedom’ of Hong Kong. 

Aanchal Nigam
China
Image: AP | Image:self
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Suppression of free speech, meddling in elections, jailing pro-democracy leaders and passing of controversial National Security Law, is the reality of China’s so-called promised "freedom" of Hong Kong. The former British colony, Hong Kong agreed to China’s leadership under a unique set up of "One Country, Two Systems" on 1 July 1997, and Beijing assured that the city would get 50 years to practise capitalism and enjoy several freedoms that are not allowed in the mainland. 

However, China’s clampdown on Hong Kong’s freedom became one of the major global concerns following pro-democracy protests that started in 2019. Hong Kong protests were kickstarted to oppose the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill, but the series of demonstrations witnessed police brutality, arrests of participants among other struggles. The pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong since 15 March 2019, went on for over a year even amid COVID-19. 

Meanwhile, unphased by the citywide movement that developed to become Hong Kong’s fight against Beijing’s interference, China continued its clampdown. Just this month, Hong Kong’s oldest university said that it has removed the famous statue - "Pillar of Shame" - marking the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The statue showed piled-up corpses to mourn the ones killed by Chinese authorities in the pro-democracy movement of 1989. 

The controversial National Security Law

Marking the most significant change in the former British colony’s freedom since it came under Chinese rule in 1997, China in 2020 introduced the controversial national security law on Hong Kong. According to the critics of the law, Beijing’s advancement in Hong Kong threatens the autonomous nature of the city. Irrespective of the constant backlash and world leaders raising concerns over the legislation threatening the autonomous nature of the former British colony, China went ahead with the decision.

As expected by critics, the national security law has been used by the pro-Beijing government of Hong Kong to enhance its clampdown on the city. Under the law, media reports stated, administrative bodies in the city ranging from finance to immigration will be directly answerable to the central government in China. 

Meanwhile, China veiled the law as a measure to tackle separatist activity, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with the forces of the foreign countries. Previously, Beijing has also said that the legislation would be a “sword” hanging over the heads of those who pose a threat to the security of the nation. A 23-year-old protester was the first person to be charged under the security law and could face life in prison.

China allows ‘only patriots’ in HK elections

The same body which approved the National Security Law, China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) also passed sweeping changes in Hong Kong’s electoral system. China’s national legislature in March 2021 approved a resolution to drastically overpower Hong Kong’s electoral system in a bid to ensure that only “patriots” can rule the city. As expected,  China defended its increase of control on Hong Kong’s elections as “totally constitutional, lawful, and justified” and dismissed the global backlash against the Communist Party for the move.

The drastic electoral system reform in Hong Kong was expected to benefit the pro-establishment camp and further smother the political opposition in the city. Even before the law was passed, half of the seats in the legislature were directly elected and the remaining half was reserved for representatives of industry groups which according to the New York Times, included pro-Beijing candidates. Now, less than a quarter will be directly elected.

Pro-democracy leaders are often jailed

It is to note that several pro-democracy activists and politicians have either fled into exile or are imprisoned. While public protests were once ubiquitous on Hong Kong streets, large-scale demonstrations are now banned in the city. NYT stated that the ones sentenced when the protests were allowed to take place range from some of the most veteran pro-democracy leaders to people in their 20s who had been considered the next generation of the city. Even the most prominent figures of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement are now jailed including Jimmy Lai, a media tycoon and pro-democracy advocate who got 14 months in jail for his role in the unauthorised assembly.

Clampdown on pop culture in Hong Kong

China’s censorship in Hong Kong does not limit itself to elections, pro-democracy movement or political scene but also the massive film industry. Hong Kong, which was once trying to become an arts hub, is now curbed with new rules imposed by China around movie censorship. NYT stated that Beijing has also attempted to get artwork banned from museums. Even though there are still attempts to keep Hong Kong’s cultural zeal alive through independent bookstores, creators don’t want to alienate the big Chinese market. Hence, anything critical has no space in Hong Kong.

Free speech in media suppressed

Even if it means digging through the laws from the Colonial era, the pro-China government in Hong Kong has showcased extraordinary measures to increase its clampdown on the city’s media. Most recently, Hong Kong Police on Wednesday held six persons, including the senior staff of an online pro-democracy media outlet, Stand News allegedly for “conspiracy to publish seditious publications”. According to a Hong Kong Free Press report, more than 200 national security police officers were deployed to raid the offices of the non-profit online news outlet. Six current and former senior staff members were also arrested on the suspicion of “breaching the colonial-era Crimes Ordinance by conspiring to publish seditious publications," stated the report.

The 29 December raid on Stand News offices came after Apple Daily, founded in 1995 and now being called the "last pro-democracy" paper in Hong Kong, witnessed a major setback on 17 June when more than 500 police officers raided its newsroom and arrested five executives. Apple Daily was one of the significant news outlets that emerged as a major pro-democracy paper with rigorously calling out China’s heavy-handed responses and a clampdown on Hong Kong’s autonomy. While the paper was published in the former British colony for 26 years, its crackdown resulted in the arrest of five along with 44 news material hard disks seized.

Image: AP

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Published December 30th, 2021 at 14:46 IST

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