A protester adds to a wall of notes and posters related to the anti-government movement in Hong Kong, as hundreds of Hongkongers gathered near Yuen Long station on January 21 to mark the six-month anniversary of a mob attack on train passengers. Photo: Sam Tsang
by Michael Chugani
by Michael Chugani

How has Hong Kong lost its freedoms? Let me count the ways

  • The oft-repeated claim by Beijing loyalists that the city’s freedoms are intact does not stand up to scrutiny. Beijing’s attack on Hong Kong’s core values, to make it more aligned with mainland China, is insidious and very real
Lost freedoms? What lost freedoms? Hong Kong’s freedoms are as intact as ever. The city even ranks third globally, well above the United States, in a joint Cato and Fraser institutes’ freedom index. 

Those are not my words. Uttering them would betray my conscience. They are the boastful mantra of Beijing loyalists. Why they are called loyalists, I don’t know. Many either hold foreign passports or have offspring who do.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s husband and two sons have British passports. Yet she urges young Hongkongers to love the motherland and trumpets Hong Kong’s freedoms.

This is what she asked last month after condemning the US Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act: “Which aspect of Hong Kong residents’ freedom was being eroded?” The list is long but I’ll enlighten her.

First, let’s shut the loyalists up about the Cato/Fraser freedom index. The 2019 index reflected the global situation in 2017, using 76 indicators ranging from rule of law to economic freedom. Political freedom formed only one part of the overall picture. Hong Kong ranked third in the human freedom index, but it was a drop from first place.

The US law Lam denounced focuses mostly on eroding political and human rights. A truer picture of our political freedoms can be found in Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World 2019”.

Hong Kong is way down the list, with a score of 59 out of 100, giving it a “partly free” status. The US is way up, with a score of 86, giving it a “free” status. A new Economist Intelligence Unit democracy index issued this week ranked Hong Kong well below the US, at 75 out of 167, a drop of two places due to the ongoing protests. The report warned we could slip from a flawed democracy to a hybrid regime.

Loyalists paint Hong Kong’s freedoms with an all-or-nothing brush. That produces a fake picture. Seen as a whole, Hong Kong’s political freedoms appear intact. People are free to express their views, criticise the government and run in elections.

But if we look away from the big picture, we will find an encroaching erosion of freedoms at Beijing’s instigation. It began after the failed 2014 “umbrella movement”, then picked up speed with protests against Lam’s now-axed extradition bill, which morphed into an anti-government uprising.

Historian: there’s too much obsession with another Tiananmen

Protest organiser Ventus Lau Wing-hon is the latest victim. Police abruptly ended his approved protest in Chater Gardens last Sunday, accusing him of not controlling the overflowing crowd even though live TV coverage, which I watched, clearly showed he urged the crowd to leave.
Ignoring this proof, police arrested him and hauled him to court just two days later. His Tuesday court appearance coincided with the sixth-month anniversary of the mob attack by white-shirted thugs on Yuen Long train passengers. Just a handful have been charged to date.
In past months, we have seen foreign democracy advocates, including a Human Rights Watch official, being refused entry to Hong Kong, the banning of political items at the Victoria Park Lunar New Year fair, police refusals for protest marches, the stopping and searching of young people, police harassment of reporters covering protests (I, too, have experienced this), a face-mask ban, the disqualification of opposition election candidates, the expulsion of a foreign correspondent, and the banning of a political party.

Separately, each does not represent a big dent on Hong Kong’s freedoms but, when combined, they offer frightening proof of an insidious Beijing attack on the core of Hong Kong’s free society to make it more aligned with the mainland.

Freedom-loving Hongkongers are no match for the might of Beijing. Their democracy fight can only be a moral one, which has won global admiration. They lost the “umbrella movement” and may yet lose the latest uprising, with some 7,000 frontline fighters arrested.

If Lam believes mass arrests will douse the flame, she is wrong. Others will take their place because democracy runs in the blood of Hongkongers. With each defeat, the movement will spring back to life, shining a moral spotlight on Beijing.

Michael Chugani is a Hong Kong journalist and TV show host