Hong Kong’s crisis over the past week has reached levels I would never have imagined. Medical personnel and first-aiders arrested, journalists beaten, revelations of torture by a former British Consulate official detained in China, pro-democracy candidates running in the district council elections assaulted, Beijing’s National People’s Congress threatening to overrule a Hong Kong court, a defecting Chinese spy revealing the Chinese Communist Party’s grip on the city, a 12 year-old boy arrested and school children from Hong Kong’s Queen Elizabeth School writing to Her Majesty appealing for help. When I left Hong Kong in 2002 after living there for the first five years of Chinese rule, I would not have predicted this would be where things would end up almost two decades later.
Among the litany of startling developments, the claim by a surgeon, Darren Mann, that “the actions of the Hong Kong Police Force have fallen far below accepted international norms for the handling of volunteer emergency medical providers” is perhaps the most shocking.
The fact that, as Mann reports, the Red Cross decided that the crisis at the Polytechnic University on the night of 17 November amounted to a humanitarian crisis ought to be a wake-up call for the world. Although Medicins sans Frontieres previously issued a statement saying it would remain “neutral” and not intervene in Hong Kong, the organization also eventually sent workers to the field amid public backlash and a rapidly deteriorating situation. Volunteer first-aiders provide relief on the frontlines and operate underground clinics for those in need––only to be arrested for what the government calls “assisting” a riot. Those words – “humanitarian crisis” and “intervention” – are associated with war zones, not one of the world’s most developed, wealthy and until recently open cities. Yet Mann writes in the Lancet: “The arrest of these personnel is almost unheard of in civilized countries and is incompatible with the compact of humanitarianism.”
Yet alongside that is one of the most moving, and unusual, appeals for help I have seen in 25 years of human rights activism. School children from the Queen Elizabeth secondary school in Hong Kong have written a letter to Britain’s Queen, reminding her that their school was founded in 1954 to commemorate her coronation the previous year. “We wish to inform you of the dire situation in Hong Kong,” they write, “and to plead for Your Majesty’s support in defence of freedom and democracy of our home.”
These school students highlight the extreme police violence against protesters who until recently were peaceful, and point to the aggressive language of the police, calling demonstrators “damn cockroaches” in rhetoric that has genocidal echoes. “These are but glimpses of the blatant disregard of the life and dignity for the citizens by the supposed law enforcers,” say these students. They point to a case of gang-rape, and report 256 suicides and 2,537 corpses discovered between June and September this year. “This is our darkest hour,” they tell the Queen, “yet we shall never lose faith … We sincerely hope that Your Majesty’s Government would stand with Hong Kong in defence of freedom and democracy and react firmly to China’s violation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration … We strive to live up to our school motto, Vos Parate Ut Serviatis, which means ‘prepare yourself that you may serve’. Freedom and democracy are the core values that our people hold dear to our hearts … We plead, most humbly and sincerely, for Your Majesty’s support.”
Into the mix of these tragic and inspiring messages from medics and students comes the news that a Chinese spy, Wang Liqiang, has risked his life to defect to Australia and is now revealing unprecedented intelligence on how China’s Communist Party regime has its hands on Hong Kong’s throat and is influencing western democracies. He has provided details about the abduction of the five booksellers from Hong Kong in 2015, and warns the world that Xi Jinping’s aim is to infiltrate “all countries in areas such as military, business and culture, in order to achieve its goal.” The Chinese Communist Party “wants to ensure no one threatens its authority.”
Concerns continue to grow that some of the protesters from Hong Kong may have been disappeared over the border into mainland China where they are held in detention. Reports of some being put on trains headed for the border are emerging, and the former British Consulate official Simon Cheng, who has revealed his own horrific ordeal of arrest, detention and torture, says he saw other prisoners who he thinks were Hong Kong protesters.
All of this makes the prospects for peace, democracy and the rule of law in Hong Kong seem increasingly bleak. The condemnation by the Legislative Affairs Committee of China’s National People’s Congress of a Hong Kong high court’s decision to overturn the government’s ban on face masks was a grave threat to judicial independence and one of the most serious dangers yet to whatever is left of Hong Kong’s autonomy. As the former Governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten said in a letter to British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab last week, it represents a serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
Amidst these dark times, there are perhaps four signs of hope to hold on to.
First, the near-unanimous passage of the United States’ Human Rights and Democracy Act in the US Congress, which mandates the US government to a series of actions to support Hong Kong’s basic freedoms, including guarantees that pro-democracy protestors who are arrested do not find their applications for visas blocked after a political trial, the application of Magnitsky sanctions against those committing or complicit with torture, and stronger scrutiny of Hong Kong’s freedoms so that it is made clear to China that it cannot continue to erode the city’s autonomy and freedoms while reaping the benefits.
Second, the increasing messages from mainland Chinese who support Hong Kongers in their struggle. One said: “30 years ago, Hong Kong supported June 4. Today, mainland Chinese university students also support Hong Kong.” Another said: “Hong Kong people, please forgive that we cannot stand with you openly, but we hope you will understand that we are not your enemies. I wish you could get the freedom that some Chinese students failed to get 30 years ago. May the glory be with Hong Kong!” Extraordinarily brave and inspiring messages which contrast with some of the ugly intimidation carried out by pro-regime crowds at Hong Kong protests around the world.
Third, the growing support for the need for action by Britain and the international community, expressed by an increasing number of politicians in the United Kingdom and around the world. Still nothing like enough and long overdue – but people are beginning to wake up.
And most important of all: the continuing extraordinary courage and determination of Hong Kong people. When we think about Hong Kong we should not focus solely on the small group of young people throwing Molotov cocktails and bricks, but on the millions of Hong Kongers, of all generations and backgrounds, bankers, lawyers, housewives, taxi drivers as well as students, who are united in their struggle for Hong Kong’s freedoms. We should think of those school children writing to Queen Elizabeth, and the medics and journalists risking their lives to help.
And while violence cannot be condoned, the acts of a small group of protesters armed with little more than petrol bombs and catapults should be seen as an extreme, and unwise, but understandable act of desperation at months of horrific, completely disproportionate police brutality. When the protesters were peaceful and orderly, and sent out teams to pick up litter after the marches, they were met day after day with beatings, teargas and pepper-spray in their faces and rubber bullets. They were called “cockroaches”, language with genocidal echoes. Horrific scenes of police stamping on young people’s heads, beating them mercilessly when they were already handcuffed and on the ground, randomly attacking ordinary people or unleashing plainclothes thugs or criminal gangsters to attack the crowds.
A police officer drove his motorbike into the crowds, mowing people down, and live ammunition has been used. Reports of torture in detention and allegations of gang-rape are now emerging. And a government that despite calls of lawyers, businesses, chambers of commerce, the international community as well as up to a quarter of the population who marched peacefully continued at every turn to refuse to listen. This crisis could have been averted at so many points in the past six months if only Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and Beijing had listened.
So now, what can be done? Four clear steps must be taken.
There must be an end to violence – yes, on both sides, but especially by the police. It is the police violence that fuelled this crisis, and it is incumbent on the police to stop. What they are doing is not policing, it is thuggery and terror, plain and simple.
Then an independent commission of inquiry into police brutality is urgently needed, with powers to hold to account those who have committed serious human rights abuses.
There must be a timetable for political reform. Trust in Carrie Lam’s government has evaporated completely. She has minus 80% popularity, and according to one poll more than fifty per cent of the population have zero trust in the police. Only if there are serious moves towards meaningful political reform, with a trajectory towards universal suffrage for elections for all seats in the legislature and the Chief Executive, will Hong Kongers feel they have a stake in how they are governed.
And the world must wake up to the dangers the Chinese Communist Party regime present – not only to the well-being of the people of China and Hong Kong, but to our own freedoms and security too.
Will we listen to the voice of respected medical professionals saying international humanitarian norms are violated in Hong Kong, to the voice of defectors sounding the alarm about the regime’s international aggression, to the voice of mainland Chinese in solidarity with Hong Kongers and to the voice of schoolchildren telling Her Majesty that they seek freedom and democracy – or will we close our ears, hearts, minds and consciences and buy Beijing’s lies? The choice needs to be made now.