Hong Kong protests: Beijing threatening future of its golden goose?

china hk protests july1-crowds-rnAt the end of the last century, as Indonesia held its democratic presidential election following the fall of the Suharto dictatorship, a colleague at Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post asked me plaintively: “Why can those Indonesians choose their ruler and we cannot?” It is a question that takes on a special resonance as the former colony bridles at the price of its history, analyst Jonathan Fenby writes for the Financial Times:

The transfer to Chinese sovereignty 17 years ago last week was calm as Beijing treated its new golden goose with caution and pursued the policy of “one country, two systems”. But there was always a central misunderstanding. Hong Kong people (and the outgoing British) stressed the second part of the formula advanced by the late paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, as a guarantee that their way of life would continue for the 50 years laid down in the handover agreement.

But many of those 7m people thought that, as inhabitants of an advanced, law-abiding city, they were entitled to exercise democratic rights. They grew resentful at the way central authorities sought to exercise control of the Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) of Hong Kong through three ineffective chief executives selected by a small circle of electors approved by Beijing. That resentment deepened by the prospect of the next choice of chief executive in 2017, with a wider franchise, still being controlled from the centre by the stipulation that only candidates who “love China” be allowed to stand.

The publication of a White Paper in Beijing last month raised the temperature significantly by stating that China’s central government had “comprehensive jurisdiction” over local administrations and that “the high degree of autonomy of the HKSAR is not full autonomy nor decentralised power” but only “the power to run local affairs as authorised by the central leadership”. There was particular concern at the assertion in the 14,500-word document that judges should be “patriotic”.

Despite hundreds of thousands voicing support for democracy in Occupy Central’s unofficial referendum and the July 1 march, the size of the pro-democracy camp is still not enough to take on Beijing, says the former head of the government’s top think tank:

And Lau Siu-kai warned that continued political unrest would make the city ungovernable, but stopped short of suggesting the People’s Liberation Army might be deployed on Hong Kong streets. Lau is the former head of the Central Policy Unit, and is now the vice-president of a pro-Beijing think tank, the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies. He was previously an adviser to Beijing on Hong Kong affairs.

Last week Lau warned of “bloody conflicts” if confrontation between Beijing and Hong Kong worsened, the South China Morning Post reports.

China’s effort to put pressure on the “special administrative region”, as Hong Kong is now unglamorously known, has backfired, some say.

“When Hong Kong reverted to China, there weren’t supposed to be any fundamental changes for 50 years,” said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian. “But so much seems to have changed after just 17 years,” he told the FT:

Mr Zhang said Beijing was less concerned about the situation in Hong Kong per se, and more worried about spurring demand for universal suffrage on the mainland.

For Hong Kong, the battle is not just about democracy. The territory has enjoyed a business-friendly reputation precisely because it is seen as the one place in China where the rule of law is upheld. Even the four big international accountancy firms, nervous about the impact that unrest could have on business, took out an advertisement declaring they were against the pro-democracy movement.

Thus Hong Kong’s reputation as a business centre could receive a double blow. On the one hand, the institutions that underpin it could be weakened as Beijing asserts more authority. On the other, the backlash against such perceived threats could create an instability that makes international companies think twice about basing operations there.

The strength of feeling was shown when nearly 800,000 people voted in an unofficial online poll for a democratic system for selection of the next chief executive, Fenby notes:

More than 100,000 joined a rally to call for democracy. Further protests are planned. Beijing criticised “outside forces” for interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs after the British and US consuls-general spoke about democracy. Business is worried at the effect of the protests on its links with the mainland. The big four global accounting firms ran a joint advertisement in local newspapers opposing the democracy movement. Ming Pao, a Chinese-language HKSAR newspaper, worried that the “one country, two systems” concept had become an “empty shell” with Hong Kong likely to turn into an “ordinary Chinese city”.


China: civil society activism emerging despite crackdown


Achina ngo color revn image passed around social media site Weibo shows several men straining to hoist a flag atop rubble, a reference to the iconic World War II image of American troops hoisting the United States flag at Iwo Jima. But on the flag are red letters spelling “NGO,” not the stars and stripes of the 1945 photograph. The message is clear: Americans use NGOs to conquer, DIDI KIRSTEN TATLOW writes for the New York Times’ Sinosphere blog:

Many Chinese officials believe Western governments use nongovernmental organizations to encourage democratic “color revolutions,” pointing to what they regard as a foreign hand in the recent political tumult in Ukraine and Egypt and in calls for greater democracy in Hong Kong. That attitude may have spawned a new investigation, one that apparently began not long after China’s new National Security Commission, headed by President Xi Jinping, met for the first time on April 15: a “penetrating” security review of foreign nongovernmental organizations in China….

china ngo form ny timesChinese nongovernmental organizations around the country, meanwhile, are being asked whether they receive foreign funding, how much and from whom, and how they use it. A page from a form [right] said to be from the government, requesting information from foreign nongovernmental organizations.

Three forms sent to a leading Chinese nongovernmental organization that receives overseas funding contained a total of 36 questions, asking for names and ID numbers of employees and “cooperating Chinese persons,” as well as questions about the organization’s “sphere of work,” “political background” and “goals.” It also asks for the names of “NGO employees who are active in China,” in language that is sometimes used to describe spies.

The Chinese government’s crackdown on activists and civil liberties shows little sign of abating, even though the tense 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre has passed, said Human Rights Watch:

A wide range of activists – some more prominent than others, some involved in activities directly related June 4 and others less so – have been detained. For example:

  • In Henan Province, at least nine activists, including two lawyers, Chang Boyang and Ji Laisong, have been detained since May 27 on suspicion of “gathering crowds to disturb public order.” They are held, sources say, for participating in an activity in February commemorating the Tiananmen anniversary.
  • In Guangdong Province, three activists, including a lawyer, Tang Jingling, have been detained since May 16. They were first detained on suspicion of “picking quarrels and stirring up troubles” but formally arrested on June 20 for the more serious crime of “inciting subversion.” Their alleged crime is related to their promotion of the concept of nonviolent civil disobedience in Guangzhou.
  • In Beijing, prominent lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was formally arrested on June 13 for “picking quarrels and stirring up troubles,” and “illegally obtaining citizens’ personal information.” The basis of the charges against Pu is not clear.
  • A journalist, Gao Yu, has been detained since April 24 for “leaking state secrets.” Gao allegedly provided a certain “secret document” of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee to a foreign website, which published it in full and it was reposted on a number of other websites, official media reports said. The authorities have not clarified which document she allegedly leaked, but scholars and journalists believe it to be Document Number Nine, which warned Chinese officials to be vigilant about “seven subversive elements” in society, including “universal values” such as human rights, media reports said.

“The authorities’ already-limited tolerance for activism has significantly shrunk in recent months and, increasingly, peaceful speech is being treated as criminal,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The intention appears to be to make everyone think twice before they act, as there is no telling what people will be detained for next.”

Yet grassroots activism is bubbling up despite the crackdown, NDTV reports.

James Miles, the Economist’s Beijing Bureau Chief, said in CNN’s report: “What we might see now compared with 25 years ago during Tiananmen, is that the cells of organizations are more quickly formed.” 

“It would be more difficult for the government to control information, to stop people organizing, and to stop the flow of information in these kinds of critical events.” Miles believes civil society may very well play a crucial role in changing China’s political landscape.  


China: harsh sentences for anti-corruption activists

China-_Tre_Activists_-_Liu_-_Wei-LiNew Citizens’ Movement activists Liu Ping and Wei Zhongping were each sentenced to six and a half years in prison on Thursday, while a third, Li Sihua, received a sentence of three years, China Digital Times reports.

The New Citizens advocate causes such as asset disclosure by officials and education rights for migrants’ children; these judgments are the latest in a series against members of the movement, which has been systematically dismantled over the past year. From Patrick Boehler at South China Morning Post:

The Yushui District People’s Court in Xinyu found all three defendants guilty of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. Liu and Wei were also found guilty of “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order in a public space” and “using an evil cult to undermine law enforcement”.

The Xinyu verdicts are the harshest reported so far in a nationwide crackdown on the New Citizens Movement that started last year.

[…] Local authorities in Xinyu have long considered the three “thorns in their eyes”, said Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The local authorities have essentially used the current crackdown as an opportunity,” she said. [Source]

The charges of “using an evil cult” refer to messages Liu and Wei sent about the trial of a Falun Gong practitioner in 2012. A press release from Amnesty International reported that some of the charges had been changed without proper notice:

The court changed the charge from “illegal assembly” to the more heavy charge of “picking quarrels and creating troubles” six months after the trial and just days before the sentencing. This sudden change meant that Liu Ping’s lawyers, Si Weijiang and Yang Xuelin, were only informed of the date of the sentencing two days in advance. This violates the legal requirement of three days’ advance notice, and forced the lawyers to be absent at the sentencing due to other court appearances. [Source]

The three’s trial in Xinyu in December—their second, after they aborted the first by dismissing their own lawyers in protest—was marked by pandemonium outside the courthouse. Defence lawyers including Pu Zhiqiang, himself recently arrested, reported that hundreds of “government-appointed thugs” surrounded them, shoving and hurling insults. (A subsequent directory from the State Council Information Office ordered that “all online news on the case of Liu Ping and the rest […] especially news related to the comments and actions of their lawyers” be deleted.) The New York Times’ Didi Kirsten Tatlow reported on Wednesday that local authorities had taken a heavy-handed approach ahead of the sentencing as well….

“This is a crazy retaliation, a shameless retaliation, which has no connection with the law, the legal system or rule of law,” the New Citizens Movement said in a statement on its website. “This is not just a retaliation against Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping and Li Sihua but retaliates against and dishonors the rights of citizens.”

“The harsh sentences are just the latest moves in the politically motivated crackdown on the New Citizens’ Movement,” William Nee, a China researcher at Amnesty International in Hong Kong, said in an e-mailed statement. “They are prisoners of conscience and should be released immediately and unconditionally.”

China Digital Times is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.

Huge crowds hold Tiananmen vigil in Hong Kong

tiananmen vigiljune4-candle-a_0

Tens of thousands of people attended a vigil in Hong Kong to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, calling on China to vindicate the student movement that led the protests, Bloomberg reports:

Visitors to the event at Victoria Park were greeted with loudspeakers broadcasting slogans and banners demanding an end to the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. A human-sized Goddess of Democracy statue stood in the park, where many were sitting. As night fell, hundreds lit candles and observed a moment of silence at 8:38 p.m. after organizers placed wreaths to commemorate those who lost their lives.

Some estimates put the crowd at up to 180,000-strong.

Tiananmen is generally thought of as a student movement, but there was also a great deal of worker participation, as workers, students, and other participants had the same goals, notes Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan.

“They all wanted the ruling Chinese Communist Party to open itself up to dialogue with society over issues of corruption, reform, rule of law, and citizens’ rights,” he writes for the Shanker blog:

A group called the Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation took shape during the movement under the leadership of Han Dongfang, then a young railway worker ["one of the few activists from Tiananmen who has been able to translate ideals into real change for thousands of Chinese"]. Today he leads an important worker rights organization, China Labour Bulletin, that works on Chinese labor rights issues from its office in Hong Kong.  Outside of Beijing, demonstrations occurred in more than 300 other cities, also with worker participation. Some of the harshest penalties after the crackdown were imposed on workers, rather than students.

Looking back on the Tiananmen movement, it is striking how modest the protesters’ demands were: an end to press censorship and restrictions on demonstrations; openness about the income of state leaders; increased funding for education, notes Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.

“Since then, China has made progress in many ways: building a modern economy, lifting hundreds of millions from poverty and becoming an influential power. It is hard to imagine how granting the demonstrators’ demands would have held back any of this progress; on the contrary, China could have advanced even further and shared those advances with even more of its people,” he writes for The Washington Post.

Eventually, China’s communist leaders may find their efforts to suppress memory backfire, the Foreign Policy Initiative’s Ellen Bork writes for The Daily Beast:

According to Min Xin Pei, a scholar of totalitarian transitions at Claremont McKenna College, half of China’s population was born after 1976. They don’t remember the chaotic and violent Cultural Revolution in which millions were sent to perform manual labor in the countryside, as marauding Red Guards sowed paranoia among family and friends. Might this contribute to a change of rule one day? “The basis of rule of all authoritarian regimes is one simple fact—fear,” Pei told an audience at the National Endowment for Democracy.

“A psychological shift can come very very quickly.” What that shift will bring, no one can say for sure. But the world will have had at least 25 years to prepare for it.

China’s repression worse than ever

chinatianenmen lim

The Chinese regime argues that the massacre of unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square laid the groundwork for political stability and China’s miraculous economic growth, according to Andrew J. Nathan and . Yet the continuous intensification of repression since then tells another story, they write for The New Republic.

Five years ago, Tiananmen activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo was handed an eleven-year prison sentence for advocating civil rights and constitutionalism. Earlier this year, human rights activist Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to four years in prison for opposing corruption and abuse of power. The National Endowment for Democracy, with which we are both affiliated, honored Liu and Xu on May 29 in the U.S. Congress in an effort to raise awareness of their cases in advance of the Tiananmen anniversary—and through their cases, to bring awareness to the estimated 4,800 political prisoners in Chinese jails and camps.

The need to sustain and progressively intensify repression is a sign that the June 4 crackdown did not solve China’s problems; it exacerbated them. The ruling Chinese Communist Party faced a fork in the road in 1989. It could have dialogued with the students, as party leader Zhao Ziyang advocated, forming a common front against corruption. But the prime minister, Li Peng, argued that dialogue could end the Party’s monopoly on power. The top leader, Deng Xiaoping, sided with Li and the rest is history.

Refusal to dialogue with citizens has marked the regime’s modus operandi since then. This explains why citizens lack trust in government when it comes to land seizures, corruption, and pollution. Recent demonstrations against the building of a chemical plant in Maoming, Guizhou, and against an incinerator project in Hangzhou are signs of this corrosive mistrust.

Keeping mouths and minds shut is the task of a growing security apparatus. In the Shadow of the Rising Dragon, a book one of us co-edited with Xu Youyu, one of the persons who disappeared on May 3, shows how the political police have a wide range of flexible measures that they can use to warn people to keep quiet….

Read the rest.

Hua Ze is executive director of China Rights in Action, a former documentary film producer in China, and co-editor of In the Shadow of the Rising Dragon. Andrew J. Nathan is a professor of political science at Columbia University, co-editor of The Tiananmen Papers, and a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.