World·CBC IN HONG KONG

Are democracy's days numbered in Hong Kong?

The push is on to strengthen Chinese control of this former colony. The red flags are flying, the loudspeakers are at full volume.

China flexes muscles as pro-independence, pro-democracy protests mount

A protester at a pro-Beijing rally in Hong Kong is among those who bitterly denounce any suggestion that Hong Kong might become independent one day. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

On the edge of Victoria Harbour, not far from the wharves where British naval ships used to dock in Hong Kong, the push is on to strengthen Chinese control of this former colony. The red flags are flying, the loudspeakers are at full volume.

A couple of dozen pro-Beijing protesters bitterly denounce any suggestion that Hong Kong might become independent one day, a view echoed by passersby who sign petitions.

"It's impossible," says one man, who won't give his name. "We love China."

They also throw insults at two young Hong Kong legislators who've promoted independence: Sixtus "Baggio" Leung and Yau Wai-ching.

Rallies like this one, and even much bigger ones on the streets of Hong Kong are push back from Beijing and its supporters here. They come against a backdrop of a swelling pro-democracy movement that has seen large-scale protests, record voter turnout and the election of pro-independence lawmakers. 

Yau Wai-ching, one of two newly elected pro-democracy lawmakers who have been ousted after their swearing-in ceremony ended in a brawl with pro-Beijjing members, continues protesting undeterred. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

At the other end of the city Yau is also out politicking, undeterred. She stands on a street corner, promoting her position through a blow horn.

The 25 year-old has been called a "radical goddess" for her activism — and much worse for challenging the pro-Beijing establishment with her views.

Most notably, she changed the words of her official oath of office, pledging allegiance to the "Hong Kong nation" instead of the "Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China."

She also insulted China by referring to it as 'Shina,' a derogatory term used by Japanese occupiers during World War II.

Legislators Yau Wai-ching, right, and Baggio Leung were swept into office by young voters and a record turn-out, but later barred from office by a Hong Kong court. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

She and Leung were elected in September on a platform of self-determination for Hong Kong, two of six new faces swept into office by young voters and a record turn-out. Then, both were kicked out of the legislature last month after their swearing-in ceremony ended in a brawl with pro-Beijing lawmakers.

Asked if she has any regrets, Yau answers, "No, because I don't think we did anything wrong."

Yau says it's Beijing that's broken its promise not to interfere in Hong Kong affairs, made in 1997 when the territory passed from British to Chinese control.

'One country, two systems'

Under that deal with London, Beijing agreed to allow the former colony to stay semi-autonomous for at least 50 years. With an approach called "One Country, Two Systems," Hong Kong would be guaranteed its own distinct legal, economic and political systems and far more democratic rights than other Chinese citizens enjoy.

But Yau says China has started ignoring this promise, eroding rights like freedom of speech and free elections.

"We have to face this problem now," says Yau. "Until recently, Hong Kong people didn't think there is a need for them to discuss this issue. But it's the time that we have to decide our future. We have to push the issue."

They're trying to destroy our homeland. They're the enemy to us. They're trying to destroy everything.- Baggio Leung , pro-democracy lawmaker barred from office

Leung agrees. "I don't think Hong Kong people should show any respect to the People's Republic of China," he says. "They're trying to destroy our homeland. They're the enemy to us. They're trying to destroy everything."

Leung and Yau were barred from office by a Hong Kong court. It ruled that by not taking the oath as written, they had disqualified themselves from the positions.

But the ruling was influenced by an extraordinary edict from Beijing, jolted by the prospect of a new separatist movement. Its directive was delivered even as the court was considering this case.

The two were to be "shown no mercy," a committee of the Communist Party-controlled parliament in Beijing said. It called them enemies of China who would not be allowed to retake their oaths or to sit in the Hong Kong legislature.

Leung and Yau are trying to appeal the court decision, even though they say the legal fees could leave them bankrupt.

Both have been become targets for those who support China's intervention. Leung has even received death threats. 

Demonstrators protest against what they call Beijing's interference over local politics and the rule of law in Hong Kong last month. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

'Naughty boys and girls'

Holden Chow is a pro-Beijing legislator in Hong Kong who applauds the removal of the pro-independence duo, dismissing them as "naughty boys and girls."

He says he respects the rights of Hong Kong citizens to debate self-determination but not in the legislature.

"You do not cross the line," Chow says. "And you do not attempt to advocate independence of Hong Kong. That is not acceptable to the central government and also not acceptable to the majority of Hong Kong people."

Indeed, polls have shown that while most Hong Kong people want to maintain their democratic rights and distinct system, some 80 per cent reject outright independence.

China overreacting, observers say

By overreacting, political observers say Beijing risks not only damaging its relationship with these people and setting dangerous legal precedents for Hong Kong courts, but also scaring away foreign investors and banks with offices in the territory.

Pro-independence demonstrators are pepper sprayed by police during a protest in Hong Kong, November 6th. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

"Beijing reacts as if this is a war, a revolution, and that it has to take a heavy-handed approach," says Johannes Chan, the former Dean of Law at the University of Hong Kong. "You don't need to take it that seriously."

The problem with a powerful regime without any constraints is that they gradually think, we can do whatever we like...- Johannes Chan, former dean of law, University of Hong Kong

Chan doesn't question Beijing's legal right to step in, but he says it should be a last resort.

"Over the years, we can see that China is getting more and more powerful, economically as well as politically," he says. "The problem with a powerful regime without any constraints is that they gradually think, we can do whatever we like and there's nothing to check against their unchecked power."

Now other pro-democratic legislators are also preparing for trouble. The Hong Kong government, closely aligned with Beijing, has launched legal challenges against four more. It is asking courts to throw out their oaths as well.

Nathan Law, a leader in last year's massive Umbrella Movement protests, is another pro-independence lawmaker. Law acknowledges he could be next to be thrown out. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

Umbrella Movement leader could be next

Nathan Law is among these. A leader of last year's massive Umbrella Movement protests, the 23 year-old was swept into the legislature in September as the youngest ever lawmaker elected in Hong Kong.

"This is a total war launched against all democrats and all voters supporting democracy," he says.

He acknowledges that he could be thrown out next.

"Every day I wake up and I think it is really tough," he says. "But what's the point of me being here if it is not tough?"

About the Author

Saša Petricic

Asia correspondent

Saša Petricic is the CBC's Asia correspondent, based in Beijing. He has covered China as well as reported from North and South Korea. He previously reported on the Middle East, from Jerusalem, through the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war. He has filed stories from every continent for CBC News. Instagram: @sasapetricic