Hong Kong democracy movement bides its time in face of legal onslaught from China

The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong is a far cry from the one that blocked busy streets four years ago. The tone in the streets today is one of resignation, not rebellion, as the governments of China and Hong Kong make it clear they have little patience for dissent.

The tone in the streets is one of resignation, not rebellion — a far cry from the mass protests four years ago

Hong Kong democrats see an uncertain future as Beijing tightens control and limits dissent. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

The ferry ride across Victoria Harbour gives an eyeful of Hong Kong's iconic skyline, with bank towers up to the clouds. And if you ask, the commuters on board provide an earful on what's happened to their city — the high cost of housing and living, the hassles of traffic congestion.

But raise politics and you're likely to get an exasperated sigh.

"Hong Kong used to be special," said a man who only gave the name Yu. "The Chinese government is deleting everything special. They control."

Another passenger, Clara Hu, lamented the threats to the democratic freedoms that once set this former British colony apart from China, including freedom of speech and the right to vote.

And yet, the tone in Hong Kong today is one of resignation, not rebellion — a far cry from the mass protests four years ago triggered by outrage over perceived heavy-handedness by the Chinese.

This, despite newspaper headlines that talk of democracy activists being jailed and political parties banned.

Andy Chan is leader of the National Party, which is under threat of being banned in Hong Kong because it advocates independence for the former British colony. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

Andy Chan knows all about that. His small National Party is under threat of being outlawed by the police, who call it a "threat to national security" because it openly advocates independence for Hong Kong.

"The ultimate goal is to preserve the Hong Kong people," Chan said. "We want to protect our language, our culture, our tradition, our living style. And they [Chinese authorities] are afraid of democracy."

There is no law that specifically bans separatism, but the Hong Kong government would use a section of its so-called Basic Law — Hong Kong's de facto constitution — that was originally intended to target criminal gangs and triads.

"Before 1997, we were a colony of the U.K. And after 1997, we are now a colony of China," he said in an interview with CBC on the street, as a couple of men approached to listen in. One of them took pictures before both slipped away.

"Possibly, we are facing prison," he said. "But somebody has to stand up and speak out."

Chan is surrounded by photographers as he leaves the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Hong Kong on Tuesday. (Reuters)

Chan said he's regularly followed by police and has come under pressure to stay quiet. The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Hong Kong was asked by both the Chinese and the Hong Kong governments to withdraw an invitation for Chan to speak this past Tuesday, but refused. Chan's speech went ahead amid a heavy police presence and pro-Beijing demonstrators outside.

Police have formally asked the Hong Kong government to ban Chan's party and authorities are considering it. They are scheduled to hear the party's defence in September.

Ronny Tong defends the proposed ban of the National Party. He's a member of Hong Kong's Executive Council, its cabinet. "A line has to be drawn," he said.

Any party that promotes separatism is not only illegal, he said, but is likely to offend Beijing, something Hong Kong cannot afford to do if it wants to keep a special status called "One Country, Two Systems."

I believe in the next three decades, there will be a movement even larger than the Umbrella Movement. Hong Kong people will fight for democracy.- Joshua Wong, activist

That was part of the compromise offered by China when it took control of Hong Kong from the U.K., promising to respect the former colony's more lenient political system for at least 50 years.

Tong says that compromise requires Hong Kong to give China what it wants as part of a process of "gives and takes."

"And if some of the give and take is that we must not offend national security of China," he said, "I don't see it as too high a price to pay for the rights and freedoms that we continue to enjoy."

But many in Hong Kong say Beijing is taking away those rights and freedoms regardless, and it's using Hong Kong's own legal system to serve its purposes — going after pro-democracy activists in the courts and using legal procedures to disqualify candidates and parties it dislikes. Appeals are possible but they are drawn out and expensive.

Chinese authorities "are clever in the sense that it all seems to have a facade of rule of law," said Ma Ngok, a professor of government and public administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"China is getting more and more autocratic and it seems they are getting more interventionist in Hong Kong affairs."

'Red line'

And yet, Ma said, few Hong Kongers are ready to challenge China on the streets anymore. They are "disillusioned," he said, and "they don't feel they can do something about it."

Or perhaps, they are frightened off by Beijing's threats that it won't put up with much dissent from Hong Kong.

Last year, during his only visit to Hong Kong while in power, Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a tough speech, warning against "provoking confrontation" with Beijing.

"Any attempt to endanger China's sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government … or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line, and is absolutely impermissible," he said.

Activist Joshua Wong, one of the leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, has since spent months in prison for demonstrating for democratic rights. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

Joshua Wong has been a target of the well-organized, well-funded and well-connected Beijing forces in Hong Kong.

Four years ago, at 17, he was a leader of the so-called Umbrella Movement that saw tens of thousands of protesters block Hong Kong's main roads for two months in an attempt to win more democratic rights.

"With our umbrellas to protect ourselves, we show that we aren't afraid of those tear gas, pepper spray from police," he said, standing on the same street corner where he was confronted by riot police.

Wong delivers a speech as protesters block the main street to the central financial district in Hong Kong on Oct. 1, 2014. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Along with other student activists, Wong spent months in jail for his role in that sit-in and other demonstrations. He's out on bail, awaiting the verdict in an appeal of another protest-related charge.

He concedes it would be difficult to get as many people on the streets now.

"Even if we can't mobilize people to block the roads tomorrow, the day will come," he said. "I believe in the next three decades, there will be a movement even larger than the Umbrella Movement. Hong Kong people will fight for democracy."


Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.


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