University of Hong Kong students clean the Pillar of Shame statue, a memorial to the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen raid, on June 4, 2019. (Kin Cheung, Associated Press)
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HONG KONG – As the days of 2021 grew shorter, all remaining traces of democracy in Hong Kong disappeared too.
On Wednesday, a pro-democracy media company – one of the last openly critical voices in town – was shut down after a police raid. In early December, the opposition was banned from elections due to a new law that subjects all candidates to a loyalty test. And memorials to commemorate the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 have been demolished.
During the year Beijing city authorities and central government eradicated almost everything the pro-democracy movement advocated. Activists fled abroad or were jailed under the draconian National Security Act imposed on the city 18 months ago. Unions and other independent organizations have been closed.
Where Hong Kong once allowed “open opposition and questioning of the government’s core policies and legitimacy … meaningful political debates will now take place among a small circle of government officials,” said Kurt Tong, partner at The Asia Group and former US Consul General in Hong Kong and Macau.
The times when the former British colony was considered a bastion of freedom will be remembered. Returning to China in 1997, Hong Kong has endured an overhaul of its political system and crackdown on political differences. Authorities tried to quell the anti-government sentiment that led to months of political unrest in 2019.
The most recent example was the Hong Kong police raid on online pro-democracy news agency Stand News on Wednesday. Seven people have been arrested – including two current and former editors and four former board members, including a popular singer, Denise Ho – for alleged sedition under a colonial ordinance.
The sales point announced in the afternoon that it would cease operations.
Stand News is the second media company to shut down after being targeted by Hong Kong authorities. Apple Daily was shut down in early 2021 after authorities raided their offices for the second time and froze millions in assets.
“Democracy has been under sustained attack in Hong Kong for well over a year,” said Luke de Pulford, coordinator of the London-based Inter-Parliamentary Alliance for China, a group of lawmakers from democratic countries focused on relations with China. “No democracy can function without a free press.”
“If critical information about the government in Hong Kong or China cannot be released, then we must say that the last vestiges of democracy have been wiped out.”
In a series of tweets, Hong Kong activist Nathan Law urged the world “to publish about Hong Kong … (and) about the brave journalists who risk so much”. Law, who fled to London after the Security Act was implemented, said he feared “a domino effect” that would cause other branches to close.
Little is left of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. More than 100 pro-democracy figures and others have been arrested under the Security Act, which punishes acts deemed separatist or undermines the Hong Kong or China government.
That includes 47 people indicted in February on Subversion for their role in an unofficial 2020 primary election to identify the best candidates for the scheduled general election.
Authorities accused the activists of subversion, saying they wanted to win a majority in order to cripple the government and eventually force Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam to resign.
The government postponed the 2020 elections, citing public health risks COVID-19. Then the central government in Beijing announced new electoral laws earlier this year that reduced the proportion of directly elected seats to less than a quarter and required all candidates to be loyal to Beijing.
The results were predictable: earlier this month, when the elections finally took place, propeking-friendly MPs won a landslide victory. For the first time since the transfer of power in 1997, the city’s largest opposition party, the Democratic Party, no longer nominated any candidates.
If critical information about the government in Hong Kong or China cannot be published, then it has to be said that the last vestiges of democracy have been wiped out.
–Luke de Pulford, London-based Inter-Parliamentary Alliance Coordinator for China
Several democracy-friendly unions and organizations were also dissolved this year. The city’s largest teachers’ union disbanded in August due to the political climate, and was later followed by the city’s largest independent union.
The Civil Human Rights Front, a pro-democracy group that organized some of the biggest protests in 2019, also disbanded after a police investigation under the National Security Act.
Other pro-democracy activists have also been arrested for participating in unauthorized protests and the annual candlelight vigil on Tiananmen, which has been banned for two consecutive years. Most of the city’s democracy activists are behind bars or have fled abroad.
Towards the end of the year, several works of art reminiscent of the Tiananmen massacre were removed.
Two days before Christmas, the University of Hong Kong cited legal risks when it ordered the removal of the Pillar of Shame memorial, which shows a pile of torn and twisted bodies of Tiananmen victims. Several other universities followed suit, making it with pro-democracy and Tiananmen statues.
China’s Communist Party has long tried to remove Tiananmen Square from public consciousness on the mainland and banned all commemorative events. Now she seems determined to do the same in Hong Kong to restore stability to the city.
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