On 1 July next Hong Kong will begin the twenty years until its official return to the Chinese motherland. Busy as usual, but with an additional concern for the economic situation, it does not ignore the problems and the risks it must face, starting with the continuing tension with Beijing in an effort to preserve the rights inscribed in its Basic Law, the mini-constitution that for fifty years should have assured it substantial autonomy.
Instead … “The situation is getting worse, because the authorities implement measures to try to limit the rights of the population, starting with the freedom of information. Even the attitude of the police is increasingly repressive. We are talking about local institutions, local police … that more and more are adapting to a government whose mentality is becoming increasingly more repressive”, said Anthony Lam, a scholar of the Chinese Church, but also active in the defense of civil rights.
In what is for Beijing a special Region in economic terms especially, the first and indispensable driving force in its development is based on ‘market socialism’ and thus political and civil prerogatives often remain in the background and undergo a gradual erosion. Not by chance, local civil society complains, democratic reforms are controlled by China and the freedoms guaranteed by the Treaty with the United Kingdom and by the local constitution witness a steady decrease, with freedom of demonstration, press and expression increasingly limited. These are accompanied by episodes that create areas of deep shadow about the methods by which Chinese control is manifesting itself. Twice, in 2010 and 2012, the Congress of the Chinese people (in fact, the Beijing Parliament) voted against concessions which it was believed would grant openings to a protest that challenged the Chinese system.
The main countermeasure of Beijing is an electoral system that the Democrats define as ‘unjust’, with only one half of those on the Legislative Council Board elected and the other half designated by the ‘electors’, one inhabitant in a thousand, who carry forward the policy of Beijing and also elect the government and head of government. Democratic groups express concern that more and more activities in favor of justice and participation end up by colliding with the anti-subversion law that makes formal charges and eventual judgments easier.
The economy, employment, the wage levels are affected by the gradual suffocation of political and social life. Especially since official policy tends to collude more and more with the interests of local tycoons. A grip, that between businessmen and Chinese power, that brings up prices, reduces wages, erodes workers’ rights; it also denies the right of a pension in favor of collective bargaining.
There are other not unimportant issues that lead to the second order of problems facing Hong Kong: the economy slowing down, income and opportunities’ inequalities abound, global integration is being felt. A city that statistics show to be among the most expensive in the world for housing prices, a champion of free enterprise and social spending, Hong Kong registers the largest gap in Asia between rich and poor. It is a situation that has little chance of being resolved in a short time.
And yet immigration from China still increases, not just that granted by rushed agreements between local government and Beijing, but also by a large number of irregulars. For all immigrants, but more so for these latter, life is made difficult by high costs, under-employment, housing insecurity, ignorance of English and often of Chinese in its Cantonese version. Finally with lifestyle habits that lead to little respect, there is growing discomfort now with events of real discrimination. ‘We demand universal suffrage, we ask to elect our representatives directly to the Legislative Council, and not just one half of them. The other half, in fact, is designated by ‘electors’, one person in a thousand, that advance the freedom-destroying politics of Beijing and also elect the government and head of government’ – reports Lee Cheuk-yan, head of the leading independent trade union and member of the Legislative Council.
A partial reading of events in the country’s modern history – including the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square crackdown – are rejected by many in the former British colony, where patriotism, nationalism and similar instruments of power still find little space but where rights and legality count greatly. The public demonstrations to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen that are held every June 4th show this, but also the many initiatives that mark the path of an active civil society and politics that demand real democracy.
Independent education is also threatened by systems and ideologies. A front on which the local Church has campaigned for years, active and strong in the former colony but aware of her sister Church’s suffering in the People’s Republic of China, and here she finds herself in the forefront in opposing Beijing’s offensive on the educational plane. At the center of the protest, the Chinese model, a leaflet that was circulated among school officials to explain the change of the subjects for study in force since 1 September 2012. Interventions that were initially voluntary but became mandatory in a phased manner by 2015. At the center were courses of ‘civic education’ and ‘better knowledge of the Chinese motherland’ that for critics represent an attempt by the communist government to influence young people.
The last open front for democratic movements in Hong Kong and Beijing is that of the mass media, combated not only directly by Beijing’s policy of headline control, control of radio and television stations and social media, but also by intimidation and aggression towards exponents of the independent media. “The situation is getting worse, because the authorities implement measures to try to limit the rights of the population, beginning with freedom of information. Local institutions, local police are increasingly adapting to a government whose mentality is becoming more repressive”, noted Anthony Lam, a scholar of the Chinese Church and Catholic activist for civil rights.
As reported by members of the local civil society, Hong Kong is for Beijing a special region in terms of the economic system, but it pretends to ignore that it is so also on the political and civil level. In practice, freedom of protest, of information and of expression are increasingly limited. Contrary to the tradition of the former colony, cases of abuse of power by the security authorities are not infrequent and the pressures about the coverage of local Chinese events multiply. (S.V.)