‘It is always the tyrant that should be brought to trial’: repression and resistance in Hong Kong

Charlie Hore considers the onslaught of attacks on democracy in Hong Kong, and reflects on what the Kill the Bill movement can learn from Hong Kong’s pro-democracy resistance.

Image shows activists from the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions holding up a flag.
Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Earlier this month, a Hong Kong court handed down prison sentences to ten leading figures in the city’s pro-democracy movement. The far-left activist Leung Kwok-hung (better known as ‘Long Hair’) was jailed for 18 months, while media mogul Jimmy Lai and leading trades unionist Lee Cheuk-yan were both given 14 months. The other sentences were suspended, but this nevertheless marks a major escalation of repression against the movement. The ten were sentenced for taking part in or organising unauthorised demonstrations, a charge for which people have previously only been fined.

The media have been singled out for further repression, with Lai (one of the very few rich people to oppose Hong Kong’s rulers) facing several further charges, and an investigative journalist fined for reporting on the police’s failure to respond to an attack on protesters.

There have also been attacks on the already limited voting rights for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, including a provision for vetting candidates to ensure that only ‘patriots’ are allowed to stand, and a proposed law that would make it illegal to advocate not voting or spoiling a ballot paper. At the beginning of this year, over 50 people were arrested for running in primaries to choose pro-democracy candidates for Legislative Council elections. The effect has been to make it almost impossible for any oppositional candidates to stand.

The mass movement that exploded in 2019 began as a protest against a proposed extradition treaty, but quickly broadened to become a more generalised opposition to Hong Kong’s rulers, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that stands behind them. At its height, the movement was able to draw hundreds of thousands onto the street despite severe police brutality, and managed to win a majority of the popularly elected seats in the last Legislative Council elections.

However, the movement has been on the defensive over the past year, in part because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which restricted the numbers turning out to demonstrate, but also because of Beijing’s imposition of a ‘National Security Law’, which effectively ends Hong Kong’s autonomy. The pandemic was used as an excuse to further postpone elections until at least August this year.

The most recent round of repression shows that Hong Kong’s rulers will continue to take revenge on the movement that threatened their control, but it also betrays their continued fear of a revival. The authorities may have driven the movement off the streets, but their efforts have resolved none of the underlying issues that gave the movement its power and dynamism.

The parallels with the fight against the Tories’ Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill should be obvious. The two political systems may be very different, but the shared aim of criminalising all opposition from below is one that has to be fought. As one Hong Kong activist put it:

‘What is the purpose of a protest, if not to make the voice of the people heard? A protest that causes no disturbance to the status quo, and which does not threaten the power of the regime, is toothless and not likely to be taken seriously.’

In the fight to Kill the Bill, we have much to learn from the determination, courage, and inventiveness of the Hong Kong movement. Solidarity with those continuing to resist is necessary both as an expression of internationalism and as a recognition of the commonality of our struggles. The defiance expressed by the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions against the jailings should be an example for us to follow:

‘It is always the tyrant who should be brought to trial, and never the oppressed people. The increasingly turbulent times call for us to step in and step up. When those before us are gone, it is then we take matters into our hands; it is then we continue the resistance. So as long the belief remains, the resistance of Hong Kong will continue.

‘We can be physically imprisoned, but our conscience continues to remain free. The people of Hong Kong, imprisoned or not, will remain in solidarity and continue to fight for a democratic future.’

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