Officials in Hong Kong have taken the COVID-19 epidemic as an opportunity to quash the pro-democracy protests that have been simmering for months. Fears and safety-related issues associated with large gatherings in the face of the outbreak make it likely that the public cannot protest in reaction. Besides, the world’s news coverage is largely focused on developments regarding the coronavirus epidemic. Hong Kong’s government can act without worry of internal or external opposition.
In June 2019, the whole city of Hong Kong reacted to a bill that would have allowed extradition from Hong Kong to China. Initial peaceful protests turned violent when police responded with tear gas, guns with rubber bullets, pepper spray and baton charges near government headquarters, causing at least 81 casualties. Consequently, focus on the bill morphed into demands for increased democracy and calls against police brutality. The protesters were incredibly effective in altering public opinion. Toward the end of November 2019, local council elections ended with a landslide victory for the pro-democracy movement, leaving 17 of 18 councils now controlled by pro-democracy councilors.
At the end of February, police began detaining activists. Beijing critic Jimmy Lai and Labor Party vice-chairman Lee Cheuk-yan were included among those detained over protests against the extradition bill in August and were later released. It seems clear that officials in Hong Kong are taking advantage of the pressure of the coronavirus outbreak in attempt to weaken the pro-democracy movement. The Hong Kong government denounced such accusations, “reject[ing] the notion that prosecutions are undertaken for any purpose other than to uphold the rule of law in Hong Kong”. Hong Kong’s denial of their true motivations behind the arrests are unfortunately characteristic. Amnesty International recently called for an inquiry into the Hong Kong government’s violent response to the protests. They cite “an alarming pattern of reckless and indiscriminate tactics being employed by the Hong Kong Police Force,” including the aforementioned violence and “allegations of sexual harassment”. The Hong Kong Justice Department predictably rejected the call for inquiry from Amnesty International. Most of Hong Kong’s moves are unfortunately legal due to an outdated and ambiguous law, the Public Order Ordinance, which the government has used to justify their actions.
One of the critical and often overlooked aspects of the historical cycle that propagates the abuse of human rights is the notion of social consciousness. In our increasingly globalizing society, the burden of that social consciousness becomes worldwide. Unfortunately, in the sensationalization of the coronavirus, news of the pro-democracy movement and Hong Kong’s government has become lost.
Awareness is the first step toward creating a social consciousness about the events in Hong Kong. Given the difficult circumstances, productive individual action would unfortunately be impossible. Instead, focus should be on learning more and spreading information to those who can indeed create change — in this case, the British government.
Britain has not only a moral obligation but also a legal responsibility to protect human rights in Hong Kong, especially considering that the situation in Hong Kong is largely legally justified from the colonial-era Public Order Ordinance. The Sino-British Joint Declaration, an international treaty registered with the United Nations, was supposed to maintain Hong Kong’s relative autonomy until 2047. China has declared the treaty null on several occasions, but Britain has confirmed its dedication to upholding it as recently as 2017.
So, where is British intervention now? Given the devastating impact of the coronavirus on world economies, economic sanction would be, while likely impactful, unrealistic. However, there are other options. Calling for reform of the Public Order Ordinance, for example, would cripple the Hong Kong government’s legal defense of their actions, perhaps finally forcing them to acknowledge their abuses. Any action, even clumsy ones, are better than nothing. The success of protests in Hong Kong can no longer be considered a localized issue; their fight for freedom should be on all of our minds.
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Thumbnail photo of Lee Cheuk-yano, courtesy of Vincent Yu (File) / AP Photo.
Aarushi Nohria is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.