Hong Kong democracy advocates urge US Congress to get tough with Beijing to protect city’s freedoms

SCMP – Hong Kong

by Ng Kang-chung / Today, 08:46

Student activist Joshua Wong, democrat Martin Lee, bookseller Lam Wing-kee and former governor Chris Patten speak to panel on situation two decades after handover

Hong Kong’s most high-profile democracy campaigners urged the US at a congressional panel late on Wednesday night to take a tougher stance against Beijing to protect Hong Kong’s freedoms.

The city’s last British governor, Chris Patten, joined them as the Congressional-Executive Commission on China was told that the “high degree of autonomy” promised to Hong Kong had decayed over two decades of Chinese rule.

Student activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung, one of the leaders of the Occupy protests, was at the hearing in Washington, along with veteran democrat Martin Lee Chu-ming and Lam Wing-kee, one of the Hong Kong booksellers who went missing and later turned up in the custody of mainland Chinese authorities.

Student activist Joshua Wong called on the Trump administration to keep an eye on developments in Hong Kong. Photo: HandoutStudent activist Joshua Wong called on the Trump administration to keep an eye on developments in Hong Kong. Photo: Handout

The two-hour session was meant to help the commission assess Hong Kong’s situation, two decades after its handover to China.

Commission chair Senator Marco Rubio and two of his colleagues are also sponsoring the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which seeks to, among other steps, punish officials both in mainland China and Hong Kong whom the US government holds responsible for suppressing the city’s basic freedoms. They could have their assets frozen in the United States or be denied entry to the country.

Wong urged the Donald Trump administration to keep an eye on developments in Hong Kong. He cited recent court cases against pro-independence lawmakers as examples that freedom of expression was under threat. He said US support was important for their fight for full democracy in Hong Kong.

Former governor Chris Patten spoke from London via video link. Photo: HandoutFormer governor Chris Patten spoke from London via video link. Photo: Handout

Patten accused Beijing of having failed to honour its promises under the pre-handover agreement it signed with the UK and the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, to allow greater democracy in Hong Kong, and warned the US government that this could reflect the way China would deal with its other international obligations.

“If China can’t even handle the reasonable democratic aspirations as it promised to do for the people in Hong Kong, it doesn’t give one a huge amount of confidence about its ability to handle wider issues,” Patten said, speaking from London by video link.

Patten urged President Xi Jinping to take the opportunity of visiting Hong Kong to mark the 20th anniversary of the handover to reassure Hongkongers that Beijing would still honour its promises.

He also cited the city’s recent chief executive election as an example of Beijing’s “interference”, claiming that popular candidate John Tsang Chun-wah was not favoured by Beijing because he advocated dialogue with the opposition pan-democratic camp.

Lee shared Patten’s views and urged the US to raise its concerns about Hong Kong’s autonomy with Beijing.

“President Xi Jinping must be told that the eyes of the world are on China, and on Hong Kong,” Lee said.

Referring to his run-in with mainland Chinese authorities over smuggling banned books across the border, Lam also urged the US Congress to keep up its interest in Hong Kong issues through such hearings that “would be beneficial to people like me”.

The Hong Kong act dates back to late 2015 after the mysterious disappearances of Lam and his fellow booksellers at the Causeway Bay Books store caught international attention. But a subsequent partisan gridlock in Congress saw the bill temporarily taken off the legislative calendar. It is now back on the agenda.

A commission spokesman said: “It is not a hearing to consider legislation, but to consider how best to proceed with legislation the [commission] chairs have already offered – the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.

“For that purpose, we are seeking information about the guaranteed freedoms and high degree of autonomy promised Hong Kong in international agreements.”

In Hong Kong, veteran China watcher Johnny Lau Yui-siu said such hearings would not exert any pressure on Beijing.

“[The congressional hearing] is just a political show for the US congressmen to tell the US voters that they are doing something,” Lau said. “The Trump administration is unlikely to make a fuss about pressuring Beijing because of Hong Kong affairs. Trump has already said that he wants to maintain a good relationship with Xi Jinping as Xi appears willing to help on North Korea.”

Pro-establishment legislator Gary Chan hak-kan said: “From the people the US commission has invited to speak, you can already tell what kind of conclusion the US congressmen would get.

“[Wong, Lee, and Lam] would like to have the world believe that everything in Hong Kong has deteriorated after the handover – no democracy, no human rights, no freedoms. If Hong Kong’s situation was that bad, they might not have had the chance to go to the US to speak against the Beijing and Hong Kong governments.”