Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose. Some may remember that song, “Me and Bobby McGee,” recorded years ago by Janis Joplin. Most Americans likely get what that song infers. Other places in the world, like Hong Kong, folks will not. The once free people of Hong Kong now have no freedom and there is literally nothing left to lose. Beijing lowered the boom and those freedom-loving citizens are trapped in a place where threat of arrest and prison is a real thing, especially if you’re pro-democracy.
On June 30, 2020, China instituted the new security law in Hong Kong. The law contains 66 articles and was dropped on the citizens like a secret H-bomb. It essentially criminalizes any act of:
- secession – breaking away from the country
- subversion – undermining the power or authority of the central government
- terrorism – using violence or intimidation against people
- collusion with foreign or external forces
The new security law gives Beijing powers to control and shape life in Hong Kong it has never had before. The law does exactly what it was meant to do – curtails protests and freedom of speech. China said the law will return stability. In an authoritarian system, ‘stability’ essentially means no freedom.
So, why did Beijing feel it was necessary to move in and take control of a city that seemed to be doing alright? In 1997, Hong Kong was moved from British control back to the Chinese. It was supposed to operate under a principle referred to as “one country, two systems.” The freedoms of assembly, speech, and an independent judiciary were supposed to be embodied in a Basic Law for Hong Kong – a mini constitution set forth when the transaction took place. The idea was that Beijing would keep its distance and Hong Kong could continue on much the same as it had under British supervision. At least that’s what Hong Kong citizens thought.
Article 23 of the Basic Law set forth the provision that a national security law would be enacted, but that never happened due to its unpopularity. So, to rein in its vassal, Beijing stepped in and enacted its own law, patterned after authoritarian measures from the mainland. Despite the agreements made during British handover, Beijing side-stepped those original agreements by the process of decree through Annex III provisions – essentially a backdoor approach allowing ‘big brother’ to squash the old system.
So, what has happened in the last six months or so? This should be a lesson to all people who might take for granted their freedoms and place value in things like freedom of speech and the press. Reports from Hong Kong include mention of numerous arrests. Apparently, anyone who is caught doing or is even suspected of acts of dissent are arrested under the new security law. Hauling people off to prison is a characteristic of authoritarianism. Remember Stalin’s Russia where millions of people disappeared in the prison system? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Russian dissident, wrote extensively about the jack-booted authorities making arrests in the night and sending people to the gulags in his book, The Gulag Archipelago.
Fifty-three people in Hong Kong were arrested yesterday for their involvement in an informal democratic primary election – free elections used to be allowed in the old Hong Kong. These latest arrests should come as no surprise; actions against freedom-loving activists have been occurring for six months. The new security laws are meant to squash dissent and opposition. The democratic institutions that ran the city for generations have to be systematically ripped down and cast into the dust bin of history if Beijing is to be successful. Arrests and prison are the tools of an authoritarian government.
Look for more arrests and more unrest in Hong Kong in the coming months. Changing the culture of a freedom loving people with an authoritarian system takes time. Anyone openly opposing the government will be at risk. In a New York Times article, Victoria Hui, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame who studies Hong Kong said that if running for office and trying to win election are considered subversion, then the [new] security law “is aimed at the total subjugation of Hong Kong people.” Total subjugation is, in fact, the hallmark of authoritarianism.