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Hot Potato: Human Rights and Authoritarian Governance in Hong Kong

Kevin McLeod, Gov 370 Human Rights, 2019

In the decades before the American Civil War, Hong Kong was a small backwater, a farming and fishing town. At the time China was struggling with a drug problem, with the United Kingdom as the drug dealers. Chinese resistance to the opium trade sparked a war. The drug dealers won. Queen Victoria was irate when presented with Hong Kong as a spoil of the First Opium War, as she and her advisors didn’t see much value in it. But the marriage of the British legal system and Chinese entrepreneurs at a well-located port proved to be a potent combination, triggering rapid development and giving rise to a major international metropolis. Part of its growth was due to its role as a magnet for refugees from the mainland and wars elsewhere.

Political ferment in Hong Kong society is integral to its character as a democracy, truly part of its DNA. It has always lived in an uneasy limbo with colonial Britain, China and for nearly four years during WWII, Japan – happy to do business but wary of and sensitive to encroachments on rights. Hong Kong presented a soft target for Beijing; it was already mostly captured. Chris Patten, the UK’s last governor of Hong Kong, likens the new reality to an anaconda in the chandelier. It’s there, it’s watching and can strike at any time. [1]

In retrospect it seems incredible that a murder of passion in a Taiwan hotel room would lead to the destruction of Hong Kong as a democratic entity and fresh assertions of national power from Beijing. Protests against the extradition treaty that grew out of the murder case erupted in June 2019, but the city was simmering politically for years already.

Basic Law names universal suffrage as a goal, but in practice roadblocks against universal suffrage emerged from Beijing just two years after the handover and never stopped. Each time barriers arose to home-grown democracy, protests flared. As Jeffrey Wasserstrom put it in Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, “[Since the handover] every political battle has had to do with Beijing gaslighting on universal suffrage…democracy is and has always been the dominant issue in Hong Kong politics.” [2]

In 2012 14-year-old Joshua Wong and Angela Chow founded Scholarism in opposition to a proposed nationalized curriculum. They gained additional prominence during the 2014 Umbrella protests that were set off by efforts to change election laws in ways that would expand Beijing’s influence. The government waited out a peaceful occupation downtown that ran on for 79 days, then implemented changes anyway. This created a smoldering resentment among many citizens.

It also forged new bonds between the original democrats like Martin Lee, Emily Lau and Benny Tai with a new generation of protesters, exemplified by Wong, Chow and Nathan Law. Lee and Lau were there at the genesis of Basic Law; they helped write it. Benny Tai resisted Beijing’s effort to dilute it and got prison time for his efforts. Students see a fast erosion of rights coming on long before the expected expiration of Basic Law in 2047 and recognize that Hong Kong’s unique fusion of east and west will be lost under Beijing rule.

In 2015 China kidnapped five Causeway Bay booksellers to the mainland for distributing books that angered Beijing’s ruling class. They simply vanished from vacation homes or while out on errands, only to turn up in China months later. This flex of raw state power had its intended effect; Hong Kong’s civil libertarians were deeply unsettled.

In 2016 these tensions were stressed further by a governmental assault on a traditional New Year’s event involving street vendors in Mong Kok. Previously tolerated, the pretext was unlicensed vendors. The ferocity of the police sparked a riot since known as the Fishball Revolution. An increasing number of police beatings of high profile protesters further strained public trust.

The 2019 protests were set off by the extradition treaty. This protest succeeded in killing the extradition treaty, but failed to achieve four other demands:

A commission of inquiry into alleged police brutality

Retracting the classification of protesters as “rioters”

Amnesty for arrested protesters

Universal suffrage

Protests in 2020 aimed to thwart the introduction of the National Security Law. This effort failed in the face of a well-funded paramilitary force tactically supported by Beijing and a coronavirus pandemic. It also made the 2019 victory moot, as extradition for trial in mainland courts is now fully legal. As Beijing scours down the remains of Basic Law, eventually the term extradition will no longer apply. Hong Kong courts will simply become Chinese courts.

I have in my possession a unique edition of Thomas Paine’s book Common Sense. The text is in both English and Cantonese.

Last year during the peak of protests in Hong Kong, I’d read prisoners were entitled to books. Didn’t know anyone personally in HK, but knew of someone who would know who could make use of the book. So I sent it to Tom Grundy, the co-founder of Hong Kong Free Press.

After a couple of months went by, I emailed to ask if the book arrived. Tom responded. It had. He couldn’t forward it to anyone because, as a representative of a publication, he needed to remain neutral. He offered to send it back. I accepted. He did.

Common Sense isn’t just any book; it’s a clear and compelling call to revolution, a point by point examination of why independence is important. While a tense confrontation over existing civil liberties was playing out in the streets, I had impulsively and naively handed Tom a hot potato.

A year later, Beijing handed the world a new hot potato. Any violation of the National Security Law is forbidden globally. This has interesting implications for all forms of media.

We can of course dismiss China’s declaration of global hegemony regarding some speech as unenforceable in much of the world. As a practical matter that is the case.

Beijing knows this. The point is to remind us of its growing aspirations and power and to create risk for its citizens abroad.

The hot potato is not China, not the CCP, not the NSL, not Hong Kong.

It’s authoritarian governance itself. It’s governance devoid of civil rights, of collective insecurity stemming from decisions made by others with no legal or practical recourse or remedy. Where communications are controlled, open discussion is suppressed, curriculums are politicized, certain songs are forbidden and books are removed from libraries. It’s ultimately any form of governance that treats people as units of value to be extracted for other purposes.

Authoritarian governance occurs in hybrid form in the West wherever a culture’s police show a friendly face to some populations and a menacing face to others out of proportion with their behavior. It occurs when a legal system issues inconsistent sentencing for comparable crimes between populations. It occurs in faiths that demand adherence and attempt to curtail ordinary behavior. It occurs in highly hierarchical business workplaces, schools, military organizations.

There are, in short, forms of authoritarian governance all around us. We accept these arrangements to some extent because we recognize there are conditions and situations where discussion and debate must end, decisions must be made, actions taken. We accept a state monopoly on the use of power because we understand free-for-all armed conflicts don’t generally end well.

The West is already familiar with a measure of authoritarian governance in everyday circumstances. It it reasonable to consider it a hot potato? Isn’t it just an escalation and expansion of a devil we already know? A difference in degree rather than kind?

It’s a difference of degree with a phase change, similar to a high mountain tree line. It’s trees all the way up the mountainside, until…they aren’t. At a certain level, the environment needed to sustain civil and human rights ends. Below that level they can thrive and vary in kind and form. Above it, they cease to exist. In terms of human rights, much of China and most especially the Ugygur region is high above the treeline. “Rights” remain contingent in a court system where 99 percent of prosecutions end in convictions. [3].

We accept confinement in small spaces for limited periods voluntarily for specific purposes – riding or driving a car, taking a shower, taking an elevator – but that’s not how we would choose to live. Similarly, we can treat authoritarian behavior management as a tool for special circumstances and purposes, but it’s not how we would choose to live.

The ability to choose is the key distinction between China and the West. On an individual level people in China retain significant autonomy and make choices throughout their lives. But the boundaries around those choices become increasingly firm and restrictive as they intersect with the interests and aims of the State. Expressions of dissent in particular are systematically suppressed, carrying risk of severe penalties. Governance has limited accountability at the village level and becomes less accountable at higher levels of hierarchy.

China has demonstrated that authoritarian governance can scale. The challenges of getting 1.3 billion people to live together, cooperate and engage in productive work are substantial. So in fairness we must ask – at larger scales, does authoritarian governance function better than personal autonomy?

It’s true that urban areas generally require more rules and regulations than a rural area to maintain the peace, but it’s a tradeoff urban residents are willing to make for the richness and diversity that a major metro area can provide. It doesn’t seem to be a problem for 10.5 million people in the democratic Tokyo region. If Japan can make democracy work in a massively dense environment, China can too.

China’s Confucian-infused culture values conformity and harmony over autonomy. It’s a core value in education, social and legal expectations. In and of itself that can be a reasonable choice. But as the competitive beings we are, there’s always someone getting more harmony and autonomy than most.

Events in Hong Kong presented the world with a real-time view of authoritarian governance and an organic counter-revolution opposed to it. The new ingredient is modern surveillance capabilities, which enables construction of datasets on individual and group movements and insights into relationships. The elimination of civil rights through the National Security Law exposes the vulnerability of any metro area anywhere. Hong Kong is home to 7.5 million people. Within the space of a single year, from the time of a highly publicized march of two million protesters through downtown Hong Kong to the introduction of the NSL, the city was subdued by a police force of about 35,000. [4]

American fans of the 2nd Amendment will be quick to point out this happened with an unarmed population. Can an armed population in contest with a highly militarized police force equipped with extensive range of surveillance options prevail? Or would the end result of occupation be the same, but with a bloodbath first?

While Hong Kong was still a British colony in the mid-80s, the concept of functional constituencies came into vogue. These were seats within the legislature intended to represent business and industry. Rather than go through a dance of lobbying and bribing, they get a seat at the table and proximity to other legislators. The practice opened in 1985 with 11 functional constituencies.

At the time of the handover to China, that number had grown to 28. The functional constituencies choose 30 seats of a total of 70 in the Legislative Council (LegCo). In some of these constituencies, the only eligible voters are actually corporations. For those seats, there’s no grassroots vote at all. It’s corporations selecting a corporate representative. The shell of an FC also provides insulation from public criticism. Policy behind those votes is drafted privately and the representative is expected to vote as their constituency desires.

Only 40 seats are directly elected by individual voters.

Before any election begins, business interests already own 43% of the vote. From that springboard, reaching majority support only requires an additional 8% of support from other legislators. The existing system is optimized to serve business interests, a model of regulatory capture.

As long as rule of law and a functional court system exists, these conditions are negotiable and subject to change. But now Beijing changes the terms. “Rule of law” is arbitrary and courts answer to Beijing. There is still a LegCo, and there are still democrats in it, with more preparing to run for additional seats. But Beijing can and will look at the math and disqualify enough of those candidates to assure they retain a majority.[5] Not for the first time. The form and facade of democracy remains, but as long as Beijing holds veto power over who can run for office, it’s no longer democracy.

LegCo increasingly resembles The National People’s Congress. Tim Hamlett of the Hong Kong Free Press describes it with biting sarcasm:

“The National People’s Congress is often described as “China’s rubber-stamp parliament.” This is inaccurate. It has none of the attributes of a parliament and does none of the things which parliaments do. It does not debate, it does not scrutinise, it does not supervise the executive, it does not control public expenditure. Its meetings resemble the traditional annual ceremony in which Ming emperors used to placate the Gods to ensure a bountiful harvest, and have about as much practical significance.” [6]

LegCo was already heavily slanted toward preserving the status quo and limiting public influence. People understood this during the 2014 Umbrella protest. It’s now a puppetlegislature with a handful of dissenters. Accountability has achieved escape velocity, with dim prospects of returning under current leadership.

Hong Kong’s rebellious population is a product of its history; its reputation as a freewheeling colony and business nexus with the West made Hong Kong the go-to place for mainlanders seeking more autonomy. It didn’t take long after the handover for discontent to form and spread, for protests to appear with greater frequency and intensity. The twin pressures of crushing cost of living and endangered civil rights brought matters to a head.

The U.S. also has serious issues with policing, mass incarceration and a “justice” system that regularly prompts protests and riots. These problems and the painful process of confronting them plays out in public. It’s messy, chaotic, incremental and slow. But it happens. The democratic West deliberately commits to the harder path of greater accountability and transparency. That’s what voting is about. Citizens get a say in how things are done, consensus is formed, laws are passed and society moves on to the next problem.

Authoritarian governance doesn’t do this. While Western nations fight among themselves and spend enormous sums on military capacity, China invests in growth. Authoritarian rule is efficient. Business likes efficiency. Where their interests converge, human and civil rights face hard times.

We are in a fraught period, with an erratic U.S. leader making unsubstantiated charges and prosecuting a trade war while human rights abuses continue in China. This creates difficulties for American firms doing or seeking to do business in China. They would prefer to overlook human rights issues on the way to the bank and have largely done so. Apple’s iPhone production is heavily reliant on Foxconn, a Chinese firm, and Telsa has a major manufacturing plant in Shanghai. China is the world’s manufacturing hub for a variety of key products, including medicines.

Accountability in governance serves an essential function: feedback. Public officials insulated from feedback can easily make decisions that hurt others through oversight, ignorance or intention. Democracy is an attempt to make an alloy of accountability and governance. While the mechanics of democracy varies between nations, it is generally structured to ensure that citizens can register objections and signal satisfaction.

But feedback alone is not enough. For a democracy to remain healthy, the power of voters must have teeth. Votes determine whether public officials retain power. As such, public officials indifferent to public interests tend to lose – that’s the goal, at least. The reality is that democracy, like any other governance system, is gamed. Particularly where propaganda thrives. Because terms of office run for years, voting is a coarse filter. Democracy requires deliberation, which requires delay even when it works well. This structural inefficiency becomes gridlock in highly partisan conditions.

China lacks a bottom-up form of feedback. The CCP does have a community village system at the base of a larger political network, and the culture stresses cooperation. But accountability decreases as position in the hierarchy increases. The people working the village leadership roles on the front line are the most accountable; their constituents are their neighbors. Carrie Lam? Hong Kong police? Xi? Accountable? That ship has sailed.

Lack of accountability bakes in corruption. There will always be some daring and opportunistic people in any field that demands intellectual or emotional intelligence. Some of those people will game the system to their advantage, wherever they are, if they can. A space with little to no accountability is ripe for exploitation. This is China’s central governance problem.

Accountability is a fundamental gauge of freedom – you only have as much freedom as you have insight into your governance. To some extent that function is fulfilled by mass media and social media, in ways both helpful and harmful. We get accounts directly from the people involved, which can ricochet in unexpected ways.

But those ricochets are muted in mainland China by heavily monitored and routinely censored mass/social media. Filtering what the public sees means accountability goes away. The Great Firewall is to this time what the Berlin Wall was in the past, symbolic of a fundamental difference. The Great Firewall functions as an immunity system against accountability.

China is using automation in impose systemic accountability at the individual level through required phone apps and facial recognition systems. They now have complete population accountability – but in one direction. Xi remains unaccountable to anyone, and is very well positioned to extinguish dissent. More so than anyone has ever been.

On the scale of China’s development to date, Hong Kong is one of many middling-large cities. Its main significance is financial and cultural. Hong Kong’s culture of accountability is met with hostility and suspicion in Beijing. Hong Kong’s preference for free speech and rule of law only remained tolerable to mainland leadership while they could wall it off sufficiently. As the world becomes more closely networked, dissent can leak through the Great Firewall. China’s solution is to move Hong Kong within the firewall and impose one-way individual accountability on the entire population. That’s happening now.

Organic Chinese resistance to the CCP exists in a high-density matrix of surveillance. They work within a system where AI can be deployed by the state to discern behavioral and movement patterns of interest to the state. A security state is not accountable to the people for its actions.

Events in Hong Kong have opened a new Pandora’s Box. China demonstrated to the world its willingness to abrogate a commitment with the West and revealed much about the power of a police state equipped with modern technologies. It has unleashed authoritarian governance on a population that dared to demand autonomy. With the passage of the National Security Law, the Hong Kong diaspora has begun; the best and brightest of a generation who fought in the streets and stormed the LegCo to retain their civil and human rights must go elsewhere to enjoy them.

Beijing unilaterally altered the terms of the handover deal with the UK, and it remains to be seen if this comes back to haunt them. China’s economic growth and development was not significantly hampered by the 1989 Tienanmen Square massacre, regaining momentum despite international condemnation and arms embargos. In HK there was considerable concern that use of force might repeat. It did – not as intensely as the June Fourth incident, but sufficient to trigger a brain drain from the city.

There are generational differences in how Hong Kongers view the protests, informed by the stories of their time. Older generations of Hong Kongers see analogies between the CCP and George Orwell’s dystopian 1984. Another generation sees in the story of the Titanic ship an analogue with people ignoring politics and attempting to conduct their lives as usual amid a life & death crisis for democracy. A young observer sees elements of the Hunger Games, with peasants and upper classes in continual conflict. The street fights between Hong Kongers and police included many young women who took inspiration from the film’s lead character Katniss. They also related to a central theme in the film; “If we burn, you burn with us”, hinting at the ferocity of response that an armed occupation or Tienanmen 2.0 could provoke. [5]

Languages, and the cultures associated with them, have organic sovereignty. If you don’t know the language, you can’t access the culture. Geographic sovereignty tends to map to the dominant local language and culture.

Pre-internet, countries had a high degree of informational sovereignty as a natural effect of linguistic barriers. Translations for widely useful or valued media were sometimes available, but this traffic traversed a narrow and limited pipeline between large cultural islands. It could not convey what immersion in the culture can. Today culture is portable, no longer tied to specific regions. Internet access makes media from any culture and any language available to any location via net access (with the possible exception of the Amish). Linguistic barriers remain, but the advent of improving automated translation makes them more of a speed bump than the mountains they once were.

This new real-time networked world is disrupting old narratives. Things people learned as children are revealed to be more complicated than they knew. These are wrenching changes, generating friction as people attempt to pick out truth in a pile of explanation, error, disinformation and confusion. This process is underway in the West.

Behind the Great Firewall the cultural zeitgeist is colored by two highly successful “Wolf Warrior” films depicting Chinese military heroism. The term has become a blanket reference to aggressive pro-Beijing rowdies who disrupt forums critical of China. [8]. Xi has adopted a confident nationalist view and now pursues it aggressively in the South China Sea. This view informs all state media, which dominates the available options.

Information access is central to the ability to make choices. Authoritarian governance strives to control information flow. The tools to maintain that control are better today than they’ve ever been.

The tools and decentralization needed to maintain open communications are also better than they’ve ever been. We are in truly uncharted territory. The existence and growth of a global nervous system is altering the fabric of multiple cultures all at once. It is knitting some of them together more firmly, driving others further apart, and realigning alliances within cultures. The broad, unfiltered reach and scope of online access shows us humanity as it truly is more clearly than we could possibly have before. We see much to condemn from this new vantage point, but there are positive and hopeful developments too.

Humanity has gotten better at functioning on a live-and-let-live basis, an improvement over the prior kill-or-be-killed pattern. Live and let live means nations refrain from overt criticism of each other’s governance practices even when some of those practices are horrendous. This facilitates business. Human and civil rights, not so much. If a nation engages in organ harvesting or beheading or state-sponsored executions or human trafficking, the tendency has been to look another way. As a practical matter trying to police practices in another culture often fails. The other culture reacts to it as an intrusion of their way of life. Deep cultural change has to come from within.

We are seeing the internet fragment into various schemes of moderation and censorship. The aftermath may see the world split and separate, not by language or culture, but by free information access. South Koreans have it; North Koreans don’t. That divide is widening everywhere.

Live and let live enables cultures at different levels of progress to work together. It’s imperfect, but it’s a step toward the next level; a space where cultures mix and match, react and connect. As the social fabric changes globally, the opportunities for re-thinking governance are rich – if authoritarians can be leashed.

Education is the key that unlocks the human and civil rights level of existence. Human rights are values that must be taught, given precedence, respect and universal application. They require defense and an understanding of why they matter. Active, ongoing maintenance – work! – is essential to sustaining these values. It is not a passive system that can withstand long periods of neglect or abuse.

We neglect this work at our peril.


[1] Piscatella, J. (Director) Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower [Documentary]. Netflix.

[2] Wasserstrom, J. (2020) Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink. Columbia Global Reports.

[3] Taylor, J. (2020 July 3) Five ways Hong Kong has changed under China’s security law. AFP.

[4] Hong Kong Police Force Budget (2019) Changes in the size of the establishment [figure]

[5] Apparently the math is 12. That’s how many were disqualified, including Joshua Wong.

Griffith, J (2020, July 30) Joshua Wong among multiple Hong Kong pro-democracy candidates disqualified from upcoming election. CNN.

[6] Hamlett, T (2020 July 18) Hong Kong’s national insecurity law and the problem with the primary elections. Hong Kong Free Press.

[5] Wasserstrom, 2020

[8] Clancy, N. (Producer) Enemy of the State [Documentary]. 60 Minutes Australia.

Written by Influential Prose

December 15, 2022 at 11:22 pm

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