x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

In Hong Kong, flagging fortunes of freedom of speech

On July 1 it will be 15 years since China took over Hong Kong from the United Kingdom, and some campaigners say the freedom of speech and right to protest they have enjoyed until now are being whittled away.

Pro-democracy activists march to the Hong Kong government´s offices to mark 23 years since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.
Pro-democracy activists march to the Hong Kong government´s offices to mark 23 years since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

HONG KONG // They marched through the streets holding placards bearing the slogans "Build a Democratic China", "Put an End to One-Party Dictatorship" and "Speak the Truth".

The hundreds of pro-democracy activists who walked to the Hong Kong government's offices on Sunday were marking, a little early, 23 years since Beijing's Tiananmen Square violence of June 4, 1989, in which hundreds were believed to have died.

While Tiananmen ostensibly was the inspiration behind the gathering, another anniversary was perhaps just as pertinent.

On July 1 it will be 15 years since China took over Hong Kong from the United Kingdom, and some campaigners say the freedom of speech and right to protest they have enjoyed until now are being whittled away. Their enthusiasm for political reform on the mainland is matched by concern over a perceived chipping away of liberties in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China.

There is "a gradual regression of human rights in Hong Kong", said Lee Cheukyan, chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China.

"It may be business as usual for the usual protests, but when the sensitive people come to Hong Kong, they are hysterical," he said, citing examples of when senior Communist Party officials visited.

Hong Kong's media and civil society are immeasurably freer than those of mainland China, in keeping with the Communist Party's promise of "one country, two systems".

The rule of law and freedom of speech and association are protected by the former British colony's Basic Law, its mini-constitution.

Much of the local press is happy to print stories detailing Communist Party infighting, in contrast to the way the state-run media in mainland China shies away from such controversy.

Similarly, magazine sellers on the street in Hong Kong hawk more than a dozen books about the scandal that has engulfed Bo Xilai, the former provincial party boss recently removed from office, volumes that would never be sold openly in mainland China.

The mainland internet censorship that blocks searches on sensitive subjects such as the banned Falun Gong movement and the Tiananmen Square crackdown does not apply in Hong Kong.

Despite this, there was widespread unease at last weekend's protest about what the future may hold for Hong Kong.

"The things they're doing, they're more and more suppressing the freedom of speech," said Kenny Yu, 28, an engineer.

"The more we go on protests, the more we see the protesters clash with the police. They're restricting more how you can protest and the number of people. It's a very dangerous thing."

Probably the most significant threat to the freedoms in Hong Kong came in 2003, when more than 400,000 people marched in protest against a planned security law.

That law was shelved in the face of the massive protests, but this year police used pepper spray on activists during a demonstration over alleged Communist Party influence on the election of the new Hong Kong chief executive, Leung Chunying. Police say activists breached cordons.

Separately, a journalists' association expressed concern over Mr Leung's "past intolerance and attitude towards media freedom". Beijing has promised free elections for the chief executive post from 2017.

"Many public protests are reshaping the government policy and decisions," said Zhang Baohui, an associate professor of political science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

While campaigners continue to voice concerns, some analysts believe recent government decisions indicate the authorities in Hong Kong are willing to listen to the public.

He cited the recent Hong Kong government move to restrict the ability of mainland Chinese women to give birth in Hong Kong, a decision that followed widespread public anger over "birth tourism".

Mainland mothers have been keen to give birth in Hong Kong as their child receives Hong Kong citizenship, which makes it easier to travel overseas and comes with the right to live and work in the territory.

"In terms of a range of liberties, I don't think there's any change in the last 15 years," Mr Zhang said. "You have opposition media. People, they have the right of assembly and they always do it on any occasion. I don't see there's much change in reality."

Many of Sunday's demonstrators, among them Simon Leung, a 27-year-old neighbourhood service centre worker, insist their concerns are justified.

"We think that democracy in Hong Kong is worse than 10 years ago. People are very worried," he said.

dbardsley@thenational.ae