Can Hong Kong bring democracy to China?

The people of Hong Kong were introduced to Li Wangyang in early June when a television interview was broadcast two days before the 23rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. A glass worker by trade, Li had been a union leader and supporter of the 1989 Tiananmen protests, and was in and out of jail until he was released in 2011. The interview showed a slender, elderly man, deaf and blind after being beaten in prison, his teeth broken from the time authorities tried to break his hunger strike by force. Li reaffirmed his commitment to democracy and expressed no regrets.

Four days later, he was dead.

Found hanging from a window bar by his hospital bed in Shaoyang, the authorities treated his death as a suicide, but family and friends insist that there has been foul play. His sister and brother-in-law say that his body had been found with his feet still touching the ground, indicating he could not have hanged himself. The news was also received with suspicion by those in Hong Kong who had seen his interview.

“In the past 3 years, 150,000 people turned out in the candlelight vigil to commemorate the victims of the Tiananmen Massacre on June 4. It shows that Hong Kong people are still emotionally attached to the martyrs. Although we did not know the existence of Li Wangyang in the past 23 years, we are deeply touched by his sacrifice,” pro-democracy activist Debby Chan says in response to email questions. “In prison, he was beaten until he was blind and deaf. Yet, he did not regret his fight for democracy. How can we not be moved by this great man?”

Chan traveled to Shaoyang with four other activists, hoping to investigate matters and learn more from his family and friends. She and law student Benson Siu were arrested by plainclothes policemen. During their detention, Chan says that she was threatened, maltreated and strip-searched twice.

“In the police station, I was not afraid but very angry and upset. I knew those bastards in front of me were the ones who caused the tragedy of Li Wangyang,” she says. “Although they were not the ones who murdered Li Wangyang, they were the ones who sustain the system.”

The system in China — “socialism with Chinese characteristics” — is well-documented. One can do very well as long as one doesn’t cross those in power. The Chinese Communist Party still holds on to power, and does not hesitate to clamp down on those who challenge it. But this wasn’t supposed to be the system in Hong Kong. The “one country, two systems” concept — where there will officially be one country but various regions can have their own political systems — was first hatched by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. It came into effect in 1997 when the British returned the sovereignty of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China. Hong Kong then became a Special Administrative Region (SAR), and was allowed to keep its capitalist system for 50 years.

This technically means that Hong Kong will remain more or less autonomous until 2047 — what happens after that, no one quite knows — but pro-democracy activists say Beijing’s control has already begun to creep into the region.

“There are too many strategies for the Chinese government to merge the two systems. For example, national education, vote-rigging in the elections, economic interests for Hong Kong, persecuting political activists, and censorship in the media,” Debby Chan says. “Even before 2047, the iron fist of mainland China is extending to Hong Kong.”

On July 1, Leung Chun-ying (also known as CY Leung) took over from Donald Tsang as the Chief Executive of Hong Kong. His swearing-in ceremony, which was attended by China’s president Hu Jintao, saw as many as 63,000 to 400,000 protesters gathered in the streets. Coming from a pro-Beijing party, Leung is seen as the “approved candidate” of the Chinese Communist Party, and was voted in by an electoral committee beholden to Beijing.

Hong Kong’s English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post, has also come under fire amidst allegations of self-censorship. Its current editor-in-chief, Wang Xiangwei, is the paper’s first China-born editor, and was accused by his own staff of self-censorship after he condensed the paper’s coverage of Li Wangyang’s death. Although he has since admitted that he had made a “bad call,” journalists still say that there has been an erosion of press freedom ever since he took over as chief.

Research fellow at the City University of Hong Kong Stephan Ortmann says that the influence of China may not be as great in Hong Kong as some pro-democracy activists feel it to be, but agrees that there has been increasing control from the mainland in the 15 years since Hong Kong returned to China.

“There are attempts of the Chinese government to exert greater control on what they perceive to be a potentially subversive city (and probably rightly so as many mainlanders who come to HK actually learn a lot more about China’s politics than the Chinese government would like),” says Ortmann. “There are numerous instances including arrests of protesters, the change in the editorial board of the South China Morning Post, etc. To Hong Kongers the city is dying and the mainlandization or Sinicization are to blame. This is a hot topic that is discussed in class and on campus. There are even sometimes conflicts between mainlanders and Hong Kongers on campus for instance on the so-called Democracy Walls which give students the right to speak freely.”

In his Waging Nonviolence article ‘Hong Kong’s duty to remember Tiananmen’, Jason Ng wrote:

Hong Kong’s citizens, who are governed as a special administrative region of China with more freedoms of speech and press, have seemingly taken up remembering past struggles for reform as a duty its people must perform on behalf of all those who are unable do the same on the mainland.

The thought is echoed by Debby Chan: “Hong Kong people comprehend that human rights activists in China have to pay a high price to speak up. We have a moral obligation to support those who are having an uphill battle in mainland China.”

But do the large turn-outs at protests and demonstrations represent a majority of Hong Kongers, or indicate a fierce commitment to the pro-democracy struggle in Hong Kong and China? Or do the public assemblies hide the apathy of the population?

When asked, Ortmann points out that every country has its share of apathetic citizens. “People are very active in Hong Kong demanding their rights,” he says. “However, the system makes it hard for them to participate outside such mass events as demonstrations.” This can be seen from the fact that the election of the city’s leader is not done by universal suffrage, but by an electoral committee instead.

While June 4 saw Tiananmen Square in Beijing devoid of protesters, tens of thousands gathered in Victoria Park in Hong Kong to commemorate the event and call for justice for victims. Outrage over the death of Li Wangyang has also manifested in a much more visible and vocal way in Hong Kong when compared to the mainland. Recently, activists in Hong Kong gathered to protest the Chinese oppression of the Catholic Church, following the “disappearance” and alleged detention of newly-ordained Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, who had announced that he was leaving the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.

“I think the movement is gaining in influence again due not only to the growing Chinese influence but also the corruption and the crackdowns on activists on the mainland and even in Hong Kong,” Stephan Ortmann explains.

All these episodes have contributed to the growing anti-Chinese government sentiment in Hong Kong, galvanizing more and more people into joining the movement against Beijing’s control. Activists believe that the movement in Hong Kong provides a valuable support for the work done by their counterparts in the mainland.

However, there is still a limit to what Hong Kong — ultimately a small speck compared to the size of mainland China — can do. “I don’t know what we can do to resist the tyranny,” says Chan. “We hope for the best that the dictatorship will fall in mainland China. The reform must be initiated inside China. What we can do is to support those who would take the lead.”

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