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Can Hong Kong survive?

Liberty in the face of authoritarianism

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The Hong Kong protests have gripped the world for more than six months. The question of whether it is possible to integrate Hong Kong into China’s political framework remains unresolved. Though imperfect, Hong Kong embraces fundamental elements of liberty that define its government and culture which China’s communist regime decidedly does not.

The protests were sparked by an extradition bill proposed in February which would have allowed Chinese authorities to arrest citizens of Hong Kong without applying for an international arrest warrant and take them to China for trial.

Hongkongers, fearful of further Chinese erosion of their freedoms, took to the streets and have not left.

China, with its heavy-handed efforts to assert regional dominance and unify territories in its sphere of influence, does not suffer defiance lightly. If Hong Kong is compelled to continue standing alone, it may not stand for long. International players should either indicate their support of Hong Kong or else acknowledge that their silence serves the autocratic interests of the Chinese Communist Party.

Formerly a British colony, Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997. Since then, it has been classified as a Special Administrative Region controlled by the Chinese government with limited autonomy. Using a “one country, two systems” principle, Beijing partisans and Hong Kong democrats have endeavored to reconcile Hong Kong’s limited democracy and capitalist economy with Chinese socialism.

Hong Kong is ranked number one on the 2019 Index of Economic Freedom, making it the freest economy in the world for the 25th consecutive year. This index measures economic freedom according to four broadly-defined criteria: rule of law, government size, regulatory efficiency, and open markets.

By contrast, China sits at number 100. Whether liberty and authoritarianism can coexist in two states so closely linked remains to be seen. The leaders of the American Revolution would answer resoundingly in the negative, and if the current protests are any indicator, it certainly seems unlikely. 

China is responsible for Hong Kong’s military defense and international representation. Though Hong Kongers hold their own passport and the Chinese-Hong Kong border is treated as an international crossing by both sides, Hong Kong has no separate diplomatic identity in the United Nations Security Council, the G22, or in global embassies.

Outside of military and diplomacy — and in spite of the fact that Beijing appoints the Hong Kong Chief Executive — Hong Kong largely functions as an independent nation. The Hong Kong Basic Law, which took effect in 1997 and is valid until 2047, enshrines rights to freedom of assembly and speech not enjoyed by citizens in mainland China. It also delineates Hong Kong’s separate currency and independent judicial system.

Andrew Lai, a senior at the UW, considers Hong Kong to be his “home away from home.” Both of his parents grew up in Hong Kong and prior to taking a gap year, he was involved with the Hong Kong Students Association on campus. 

“I see the use of police brutality and restriction of free speech and crackdown on protesters as an illegitimate use of power,” Lai wrote in an email.

China’s recent aggressions toward Hong Kong are the actions of an authoritarian power seeking to move into global hegemony. Moreover, they reflect what seems to be the Chinese government’s assumption that they are immune to international blowback. I can understand why they might make this assumption. 

In 2008 and 2014 respectively, China saw the global community allow Russia to annex and occupy parts of Georgia and Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula with no substantive consequences. Today, despite a cacophony of international decrying, China continues to build and militarizeartificial islands virtually unopposed in the South China Sea, expanding its territorial waters.

The Confucius Institute, a branch of the Chinese government’s Ministry of Education, has been allowed to percolate throughout Western academia, including an office on the UW campus in Gerberding Hall. This entity has been called “an important part of China's overseas propaganda set-up" by Li Changchun, a ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party leadership’s Politburo Standing Committee.

The Chinese government continues to persecute the Uigher Muslim minority in covert reeducation camps. Inmates are subjected to widespread organ harvesting to support China’s organ transplant industry. This is not the first time China has used reeducation camps to target ethnic minorities. 

“The same tactics used with the Uigher Muslims were actually used with Tibetans first,” Chemay Shola, founder and president of the Students For A Free Tibet at the UW, said. 

All of these instances reflect calculated, internationally unchecked acts of authoritarianism and abuse that are ethically egregious. The current situation in Hong Kong is just the latest instance of the Chinese government flexing its muscles.

“I hope [the protests] succeed, I hope there will still be free speech and free thought, but with the economic and political power of China, the chances seem slim,” Lai said. “I think if success were to really happen, other international players would have to step in.”

Hong Kong protesters routinely wave the American flag, and on Nov. 27, America acknowledged the legitimacy of their fight when President Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. This law requires the American State Department to regularly assess Hong Kong’s level of autonomy and monitor perpetrators of human rights violations.

As of Dec. 2, China has responded to the Act by saying it will prohibit U.S. Navy visits to Hong Kong and enact sanctions against pro-democracy NGOs.

According to legend, Thomas Jefferson said, “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty.” Regardless of the author, the sentiment rings true. How many governments fear their people today? How many governments respect their citizenry enough to believe that individuals will vocally resist fundamental violations of their rights? Not enough.

The defiance of Hong Kong should be applauded. Perhaps liberty is not so easily or willingly lost.

Reach writer Marissa Gaston at

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