But are we really witnessing a whittling away of Hong Kong’s autonomy? If the Big Lychee’s boisterous civil society agrees on anything it is Wendell Phillips’s aphorism about eternal vigilance – with extra added hyperbole if necessary – being the price of liberty. If the heavy handed police really intend to permanently restrict freedoms of the press and expression, they will have the Bar Association, the media, Dean Johannes Chan and the courts to contend with, not to mention the prospect of Vice-Chancellor Tsui at Hong Kong University declaring the campus an independent republic. (To make totalitarianism’s job even harder, we also have an almost laughably weedy government, backing down on a quick ban on by-elections and now national education in high schools at the first hint of public opposition.)
What we are really seeing here is not so much a clampdown on freedom and autonomy as a refusal by all concerned to honestly describe and explain what is happening in plain language.
The extraordinary security measures imposed in honour of Vice-Premier Li’s visit look suspicious because the official line is that there was nothing unusual about it – oh, and Li bestowed 36 highly generous gifts upon poor little Hong Kong with its pathetic struggling economy. Any thinking person knows that the security was indeed extreme, and talk of ‘gifts’ is disingenuous gibberish about minuscule central government measures to broaden Yuan convertibility – nothing really to do with Hong Kong. Faced with such BS, it’s no wonder people assume the worst.
How much better it would be if the Security Secretary Ambrose Lee had issued the following statement the day before the Vice-Premier arrived:
Dear fellow Hongkongers,
Over the next few days I am going to order the police to act like obnoxious idiots towards the press, protestors and anyone who comes within half a mile of Li Keqiang. This is because Li is a senior member of the Chinese Communist Party, putting him above and beyond any earthly laws and local practices. We have no choice in this; he is essentially a deity and we are ultimately subjects of his heaven. Sorry about this. Just stay cool and bear with us for a few days and then everything will be back to normal.
Peace and Love,
Similarly, the rubber-stamp ruling by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress about sovereign immunity will be dressed up in terms of how Hong Kong cannot have a separate foreign policy to the PRC, and this is about ’one country’ not ‘two systems’. Jittery Cassandras will throw up their hands in horror at a major curtailment of judicial independence and warn that companies may not be able to take legal action against state-owned firms in Hong Kong (presumably it depends on whether waivers of immunity in contracts remain valid).
A more honest explanation would be that a Communist one-party state cannot co-exist with a system where people may take legal action against any organ of any fellow state. More developed and sophisticated political systems do allow citizens to sue commercial entities ultimately owned by foreign governments; some are even moving in the direction of allowing people to take court action against foreign powers for human rights infringements. But for China it remains a sacrosanct part of the whole non-interference principle and ultimately the party and state’s status as above the law: people do not sue governments. If a particular element of common law in Hong Kong is incompatible with that, it goes.
Officials won’t de-mystify these issues through plain speaking because that would require abandoning pleasant fictions and admitting uncomfortable truths. The result is that the impact in Hong Kong of the monopoly of power in the one-party state appears to be sinister when in fact it is merely crude.