The Debate | Opinion

Hong Kong: The New Berlin Wall

China is home to two “firewalls.” One must be demolished; the other protected.

By Benedict Rogers for
Hong Kong: The New Berlin Wall
Credit: Flickr/ Studio Incendo

Thirty years ago this month, the Berlin Wall fell. Millions of people across eastern Europe tasted freedom, democracy and human dignity for the first time. And, despite the resurrection of dictatorship in Russia, the rise of ultra-nationalism across Europe, and renewed threats to liberty throughout the world, millions are still free today as a result of the brave people who chipped away at the bricks that divided Germany.

Yet today, there are new walls that separate people, and a new Cold War to fight. And there is a new frontline in the battle between freedom and tyranny. That frontline, that new “Berlin Wall,” is Hong Kong.

There are two firewalls that divide the increasingly repressive and aggressive Communist Party regime in China from the rest of the world. The “Great Firewall” on the internet denies the people of China access to the truth about the world and its regime, while the “firewall” of “one country, two systems” was designed to protect Hong Kong’s liberties, rule of law, and way of life when the city was handed to China 22 years ago. The first firewall needs to be broken but remains robust and threatens our very own freedoms. The second needs to be preserved but is being torn apart by China’s regime and its agent, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam, before our very eyes.

The events of the past six months in Hong Kong are well-documented. A city whose freedoms were already being chipped away with increasingly alarming speed has now deteriorated out of control. The spark that lit the bonfire of protest was Lam’s decision to try to force through a new extradition law. This would have allowed for the extradition of people China’s regime doesn’t like from a city that has until recently been regarded as one of the world’s rule of law centers to a jurisdiction that arrests, detains, disappears, tortures, and executes arbitrarily, has no concept of an independent judiciary or fair trial, and is accused of forcibly harvesting organs from prisoners of conscience. It would have destroyed the “firewall” set up at the handover to protect Hong Kong’s way of life.

Lam’s proposed bill was met with opposition from an extraordinary coalition of unlikely allies – businesses, chambers of commerce, lawyers, as well as more traditional pro-democracy activists. Before the bill, there was a clear polarization between businesses, which tended not to want to rock the boat and upset Beijing, and democrats, who wanted political reform. The bill brought them together. This was followed by an international outcry, with the top levels of the United States, the European Union, Britain, and Canada, among others, speaking out. And then 1 million, followed a week later by 2 million, ordinary Hong Kongers took to the streets, peacefully. This was a quarter of the population: housewives, teachers, doctors, nurses, students.

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Yet through all this, Lam continuously refused to listen. She only suspended the bill after 2 million people marched, ignoring the pleas of businesses, lawyers, and world leaders until that point. Yet suspension was far too little, far too late. She refused to dialogue, refused to condemn police brutality against peaceful protesters, and refused to countenance any reform. She conceded that the bill was dead, yet for months refused to bury it, only withdrawing it finally last month – by which point distrust and hostility stirred up by her actions had boiled over into violence. The rotting corpse of an extradition bill that should never have been conceived has poisoned Hong Kong.

Worse even than Lam’s refusal to listen, however, is the extreme police brutality Hong Kong sees on a daily basis. Reports of police beating peaceful protesters with batons, pinning them to the ground and continuing to beat them even when they have already been arrested and are defenseless, and spraying teargas and pepper-spray at point-blank range, are shocking. Reports of torture and rape in detention are growing, leading Amnesty International to call for an independent inquiry. A Hong Kong teenager has reportedly had an abortion after claiming to have been gang-raped by the police.

Is it therefore any wonder that the people of Hong Kong have completely lost trust in those who govern them? They have a legislature that is only partly directly elected, with a majority of pro-Beijing members, and whose pro-democracy members are harassed, intimidated, disqualified, or jailed. They have a chief executive foisted upon them by Beijing through a sham electoral college, who does not listen to them, proposes legislation that erodes their rights, condones police brutality, and destroys Hong Kong’s autonomy. When they protest peacefully, the chief executive refuses to listen and the police beat them and shower them with teargas and pepper-spray. I do not condone the violence on the part of a few of the protesters, and I believe it is deeply counterproductive. But I see it as a mark of the utmost desperation and frustration, that highly intelligent educated young students resort to extreme action because they feel no one listens otherwise. That is a tragedy.

But in recent weeks, the situation has become even more dangerous. Pro-democracy candidates in the local council elections have been violently assaulted. Pro-Beijing legislator Junius Ho, whose remarks have been filled with vile, racist, and even genocidal language and who is accused of links with Triad thugs, was also attacked. Ho was recently stripped of his honorary fellowship from Anglia Ruskin University, deservedly so, and there are calls to remove him from registration as a solicitor in Britain, which would be justifiable. What cannot be justified, whoever the target and whoever the perpetrator, is vigilante violence. And that is the point which Hong Kong has reached and from which it must step back.

The death of Alex Chow Tsz-lok last week is a wake-up call. Chow, a 22 year-old student, fell from a car park while fleeing a police raid, and died later from his injuries. It is not known whether he was pushed, or whether allegations that the police tried to block paramedics from helping him are true, but his death is a mystery that further fuels an already febrile atmosphere. It follows at least nine alleged suicides by young people believed to be linked to the protests, and several other mysterious deaths. At least 325 people have been arrested in the first three days of November alone, in addition to many others detained over the past six months. Seven pro-democracy legislators were arrested last week, and prominent campaigner Joshua Wong was disqualified from contesting forthcoming district council elections. And yesterday, live ammunition was used by police and a young man critically injured.

Over the past five years Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy have come under increasing threat, with booksellers abducted, pro-democracy legislators disqualified, peaceful protesters jailed, the Financial Times’ Asia news editor Victor Mallet and some foreign activists expelled, a new law criminalizing insults to the national anthem proposed, and other steps taken to erode Hong Kong’s basic rights. But this year this has escalated into a crisis that may destroy Hong Kong’s way of life completely. Trust in the police and the government on the part of many Hong Kongers has totally broken down, and society is severely polarized between those who want change and those who blindly follow Beijing.

The protesters’ demands could hardly be more reasonable. Their first, the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill, has now finally been met, but the Hong Kong government would have saved itself and its people a huge amount of strife if it had done so five months ago. The second, an independent commission of inquiry into police brutality, is essential if there is to be any hope of an end to the protests. The protesters also demand that the description of peaceful demonstrators as “rioters” be retracted and that an amnesty for arrested protesters be offered. Of course those who have committed actual violence, against people or property, must face the law, but the vast majority should not be jailed for “rioting” when all they did was  exercise their right to peaceful demonstration. The final demand, universal suffrage in elections for chief executive and for all Legislative Council seats, is essential to break the deadlock. Unless and until there is serious political reform in Hong Kong, giving Hong Kong people a stake in the way they are governed, Hong Kong will not be able to move on. At the handover, the promise was made that “one country, two systems” meant, in the words of the last Governor Chris Patten, “Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong.” Today, that promise lies in tatters. Hong Kong is run increasingly by Beijing, using a few puppets as proxies.

The Hong Kong government has failed to compromise, and so the world must act to defend Hong Kong. In particular, Britain – the former colonial power, the co-signatory to the Sino-British Joint Declaration – has a responsibility to lead. But Britain cannot do it alone, and nor should it, for Hong Kong is an international city, a global financial trading center of interest and concern to the world. Britain should therefore lead an international coalition, form a United Nations contact group of likeminded governments to coordinate efforts, and act together to put pressure on the authorities in Hong Kong, and in Beijing, to stop the police brutality and work for political reform. That means applying targeted sanctions, under Magnitsky legislation, on those responsible for torture, freezing their assets and introducing travel bans. It means offering sanctuary to those who may need to flee for their lives. It means escalating diplomatic efforts to argue that it is in the interests of China and Hong Kong to stop the beatings and start dialogue.

Thirty years on from the fall of one wall and the end of one Cold War, we are in a new Cold War where our own freedoms, as well as those of Hong Kong, are at stake. In this new Cold War, we are faced with two walls, one which we must work to tear down, the other we must protect until the 1.3 billion people on the other side of it are free. We must break down the firewall that represses the people of China. And we must strengthen the firewall that protects Hong Kong’s autonomy. It’s less a tale of two cities, more a tale of two walls.

Benedict Rogers is the co-founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch.