Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and writer, with a degree in physics, before two degrees in theology, and a PhD in philosophy. He’s written books covering subjects from friendship and belief, to wellbeing and love.
His next book, A Secret History of Christianity, is published at the end of August by John Hunt publishing .
It’s worth paying attention to what’s been happening in Hong Kong.
In case you don’t know, Hong Kong was a tiny British colony, it’s one of the most densely populated places in the world, even though still keeps some rural areas; it crams its people into a city that uses every square centimeter to the utmost.
In 1898, Britain obtained a 99-year lease on what’s called the New Territories, and those of you who are quick at math will have worked out that in 1997, they had to hand the territory back to the by-then-communist China.
But Hong Kong was a roaring capitalist success story, and China didn’t want to go killing any golden-egg-laying geese, so Deng Xiaoping agreed a form of government called one country, two systems. Basically, that meant that China would remain a communist dictatorship, Hong Kong would remain a mostly-democratic and totally capitalist territory, with a strong independent judiciary, even though Beijing would have ultimate sovereignty.
Don’t get starry-eyed about this, many of the elected officials know that they can take democratic principles so far and no further. The rule of law is much stronger and politics and the media are much, much freer in Hong Kong than in China, but that freedom is tempered in part by a knowledge that if they exercise it too much, it might not last.
One example was the case of the staff of Causeway Bay Books; this was a Hong Kong bookstore that sold books about mainland Chinese politics which would be strictly banned there, if anyone was stupid enough to try to publish them. For that reason, the bookstore was popular with visitors from mainland China.
In 2015, five of the bookshop staff went missing in extraordinary circumstances. It seems clear that they were variously kidnapped or subjected to extrajudicial arrest by the communist Chinese authorities while in Thailand, mainland China and in Hong Kong. They were imprisoned for months and put under enormous pressure to renounce their Hong Kong citizenship, confess to crimes, repudiate their lawyers, disown their families, refuse help from the Hong Kong police and authorities and – the real target – disclose lists of Chinese customers who bought their books.
The message was clear – the seven million people in Hong Kong can play democracy all they want, as long as there is no suggestion of an attempt to export even a shred of it to the mainland. China suffered huge international embarrassment over the affair, they hate this, but they were willing to ride it out, showing how they hate any hint of political expression even more. The five victims are still imprisoned or under house arrest in terrible conditions in China.
Then, this last February the Hong Kong government proposed the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill, better known as the extradition law. This was clearly introduced under pressure from China, and would basically allow anyone the Chinese government wanted to be extradited from Hong Kong without much fuss. In short, it would make future Causeway Bay Books cases legal, and avoid all the messy business of having to go around kidnapping people.
The people of Hong Kong do not have a strong grasp on freedom, but they are not willing to give up what they have. On April 28, 130,000 people marched in protest against the proposed law. Other international and online protests followed, and the Hong Kong government proposed three amendments, limiting the scope of the law somewhat.
Then on June 9, more than a million people, according to organizers, marched chanting ‘Scrap the evil law’ and calling for Carrie Lam, effectively Hong Kong’s prime minister, to resign. Three days later, there were more enormous protests, with many people going on strike or closing their businesses.
The protestors clashed with police, and aimed to physically prevent legislators gaining access to their council to prevent them from enacting the new law.
Then, on June 15, Carrie Lam suspended the new law. That has not stopped the protests. On June 16, the day before this podcast is published, two million people protested. This, in a territory with a population of only around seven million. Police were obviously ordered not to interfere and the protest was entirely peaceful. Carrie Lam apologized for proposing the new law, but they protesters don’t believe this is enough, they want her to resign. As I’m recording this, I can see that Joshua Wong, a leader of the 2014 pro-democracy protests has been released from prison, an obvious move to placate the protesters.
There are two things to learn from this. First, the Chinese communist leadership have absolutely no regard for democratic values but, secondly, that doesn’t mean that they are immune to public opinion. They take unrest very seriously. They will do everything to try to stop it, sometimes offer concessions, but lock up peaceful protesters, kidnap booksellers, or mow down students with tanks. These protesters are bravely walking a very fine line.
We live in interesting times.