Benedict Rogers: Hong Kong’s Desperate Cry

Condemning violence isn’t enough. The international community needs to make clear which side it’s on.

Protesters in the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong, July 1. PHOTO: SOPA IMAGES/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES

Protesters in the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong, July 1. PHOTO: SOPA IMAGES/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES

Protesters stormed Hong Kong’s Legislative Council building Monday, the 22nd anniversary of the city’s handover to China. The world was shocked, Beijing demanded prosecutions, and Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam condemned what she called “extreme use of violence.” But it’s important to consider why this happened.

I don’t condone violence, and I applaud the vast majority of protesters in Hong Kong, who in recent weeks have remained peaceful, sometimes in the face of police brutality. But instead of simply condemning those who smashed their way into LegCo, understand that it was an act of desperation after years of frustration that their voices are ignored.

Five years ago the peaceful Umbrella Movement inspired the world but changed little. The erosion of Hong Kong’s freedom, autonomy and rule of law has continued. Booksellers have been abducted and disappeared in mainland China. Pro-democracy candidates and lawmakers have been disqualified from office. Academic and press freedom have come under increasing pressure. Lawmakers have introduced a bill that would criminalize “insults” to China’s national anthem. Pro-democracy protesters have been sentenced to long prison terms. The final straw was the bill to authorize the extradition of criminal suspects to the mainland. The decision to suspend it indefinitely, while welcome, does nothing to reassure Hong Kong people, who have seen their rights stripped. They want it withdrawn permanently.

Recent weeks have seen all these frustrations boil to the surface, turning a movement against the extradition bill into a broad call for democratic reform. Hong Kong residents rightly feel they have no say in how they are governed. The chief executive is handpicked by Beijing and rubber-stamped by a 1,200-member electoral college. The legislature is packed with pro-Beijing lawmakers from so-called functional constituencies (professional and other special-interest groups), and the disqualification of some pro-democracy legislators and candidates has further undermined confidence that the body represents the people.

Ms. Lam tried to push the extradition bill through with minimal consultation. In most democracies a leader who sparks almost a quarter of the population into protest would be forced to resign, but she is accountable to no one except Beijing.

These are the reasons Hong Kongers have continued to use the only voice they feel they have—street protest—and a small minority occupied the legislative chamber, in the full knowledge they were risking years in prison. These are the reasons that at least three people over the past week have committed suicide in a desperate cry for help.

The occupation of the LegCo was unlawful but far from disorderly. Protesters hung signs saying “Do not destroy the books” and “Protect the valuables.” They paid for the drinks they took from the commissary. Their graffiti read: “There are no rioters—only a tyranny.” As prominent student leader Joshua Wong tweeted, “The protesters who broke into the Legislative Council complex were NOT rioters. They were NOT violent. Their objective was never to harm any individuals. They wanted to make the regime hear Hong Kongers’ voice, and they had no other option. WE ALREADY TRIED EVERYTHING ELSE.”

The most eye-catching moment came when the protesters unfurled the old British colonial flag. That banner symbolizes what the protesters are fighting for: freedom, human rights, the rule of law. Although Britain never gave Hong Kong full representative democracy, it governed in a way that protected basic freedoms. No one thinks the British could come back, but the flag sends the message that people want their freedom back. China promised to protect Hong Kong’s way of life under “one country, two systems,” and it has refused to live up to that pledge.

The occupiers had three key demands: Drop the charges of rioting against protesters who clashed with police on June 12, establish an independent inquiry into police brutality, and withdraw the extradition bill for good. Their ultimate goal is reflected in the “Admiralty Declaration,” read on behalf of the protesters in the legislative building on Monday. It stated that “the lack of a democratic election is the root of all evils.”

The solution to this crisis is increasingly clear. Even Jasper Tsang, a pro-Beijing former Legislative Council chairman, has said that the Hong Kong government should weigh democratic reform. He also urged Ms. Lam to consider granting amnesty for protesters convicted of criminal charges.

If China and the Hong Kong government arrest and prosecute the protesters and continue to throttle the city’s spirit, there will be more mass protests and increasingly violent acts. People and capital will flee. If the authorities pull back and introduce democratic reforms, Hong Kongers won’t feel the need to take to the streets. They are pragmatic, reasonable people who would express themselves through democratic means if given the opportunity.

The international community should make clear on whose side they stand. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt got it right when he said that he understood the concerns of Hong Kong’s people. “I’ve never had to fight for my freedom. We can’t take freedoms for granted,” he said. “My heart goes out to people who do have to fight for their freedoms and who are worried they could lose a very precious way of life.” He expressed support for the right to protest and urged Beijing to “let Hong Kong be.”

He is right, and it is in everyone’s interests for the rest of the world to take the same approach—and for Beijing and Ms. Lam to listen.

Benedict Rogers is a co-founder and chairman of Hong Kong Watch. The article was first published in The Wall Street Journal on 4 July 2019.

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