Hong Kong stands courageous and defiant

After visiting Hong Kong, you never forget this unique, vibrant and beautiful island. I find this city, which has the most skyscrapers in the world, simply breathtaking. This is especially true when viewing the city from the Sky Terrace on the top of the mountain overlooking Victoria Bay or capturing the skyline at night.

Still, Hong Kong is much more than one of the financial business centers of the world. Last week it made the headlines as the center of political activism with large protests against a controversial law that would allow Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to mainland China. I want to join the Hong Kong people in the hope that the world will take notice. Not just take notice as in 3 min news clips but speak up for the democracy and freedom that is threatened in this part of Asia.

Hong Kong’s political future is clearly at stake. “One country, two systems” is a constitutional principle which means that there is one China but certain regions, for example, Hong Kong, have its own governmental system, legal, economic and financial affairs. When Britain transferred Hong Kong to China in 1997, the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984 guaranteed these rights to Hong Kong for the next 50 years. How Hong Kong will be governed after 2047 is an open question – reintegrate with mainland China or stay under separate administration… Nobody knows what that future looks like.

It is very clear that China under the leadership/rule of Xi Jinping is becoming more and more authoritarian. Surveillance of its people like no place else; a social credit system to be fully implemented by 2020 which will monitor the behavior of all citizens  and rank them based on the “social credit“; a continued oppression and re-education of Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang province which human rights groups describe as the largest mass incarceration in the 21st century; increased religious persecution, closing of Christian churches and jailing pastors who do not submit to the government control.

These are only few of the obvious abuses of universal human rights in the name of order and control of this vast country with large population and turbulent past. I would dare to say that in China the line between authoritarian and totalitarian rule is very fine.  The age-old idea of one strong hand (party), one ideology, one strong man (supreme leader, king, emperor) is steadily enforced and Hong Kong feels increasingly targeted and pulled by force into this authoritarian orbit.

I don’t understand all geopolitics and I have no idea what goes on behind closed doors. Nevertheless I can’t shake the feeling that the democratic nations are either completely consumed with their own domestic problems or care much less about using the “soft power” of diplomacy to support democratic initiatives around the world. Recently I was discussing these issues with a Hong Kong friend. I made a remark how Western governments, including in my home country of Latvia, are suspiciously quiet on these obvious human rights abuses and erosion of any signs of democracy in China while focusing on trade wars and economics. My friend replied: ” The only place to stand up to China is Hong Kong!”

After seeing the photos of 2 million people marching on the streets of Hong Kong last Sunday, I have to agree with her. Hong Kong may be afraid about its Chinese future but people are not willing to accept it without strong resistance and letting their common voice be heard around the world. At the forefront of this political activism are young people who are no longer passive about their future prospects.

Another friend of mine who grew up in China but few years ago moved to Latvia, told me that he does not think the Westerner societies care about Chinese people (he meant the effects of authoritarianism). Those were sad words to hear and, I am afraid, mostly true. Still, I hope that this time Hong Kong people will not feel completely on their own.

 

 

 

 

Smells Like Old Spirit

China! Have no idea how to write it down without rambling … but something deeply troubles me and there is no easy way around or out of it. It troubles me a lot, it creates a huge challenge and also brings a certain sense of helplessness.

In the West, we are very worried about the rise of authoritarianism in many places around the world, including in our midst. But there is another large elephant in the room – what about about the dilemma and conundrum of our dealings with the Communist government in China? The system and power which reminds the Chinese people who is in charge and plans to stay in charge and tells the rest of the world “Stay out of it if you want our business”. And, oh, we want and need that business.

If you are an American reading my blog, this has nothing to do with the current trade wars between the US and China because you may have noticed that the human rights, liberty and democracy question is not even on the table. All we hear is talk of money and superpower competition. If you are an Asian, you have your own strong opinions which I am familiar with after having lived in Southeast Asia for many years. It is always difficult to be the smaller and weaker neighbor next to a regional hegemony and world superpower. Just ask the people in Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, etc…

Remember Francis Fukuyama and his famous (or by now infamous?) 1989 thesis of The End of History? Well, this “end” is turning into the “same old, same old”. My personal strong emotions and reflections come from the fact that I still remember my childhood and the life in the USSR – a totally oppressive and repressive system – and for those  who know what it smells, tastes and feels like, there is a strong aversion to these kinds of manifestations of power, manipulation, abuse and denial of freedom.

I also remember the propaganda and how hard the Soviet regime tried to manufacture a pretty image of a happy society. especially to the outside world. And I sense such a familiar spirit when I think of China  and when I watch how carefully and masterfully it manufactures and lobbies its image around the world  as the most “peace loving, truthful, pragmatic, benevolent, long-term thinking, secure, wealth producing and well-wishing” government. There are too many cracks in this facade.

And through those cracks, if we care to know and look carefully, we know that all is not what it seems. But these days we have to look hard because we don’t hear these stories in our media. Every once in a while there may be an article about the oppression of ethnic Uighur, a primarily Muslim group in Xinjiang province. We can read the reports about “re-education” camps and massive abuses of human rights. Or we can read the stories about the escalating crackdown on personal religious freedom and religious groups . In case it has completely escaped your attention, read this article by the Washington Post.

It has nothing to do with my personal Chinese friends whom I love and cherish. It has nothing to do with the amazing culture, history, cuisine, hard work, entrepreneurship and simply amazing people and the beautiful country of China. I have been privileged to visit it and have my claim of having walked on the Great Wall. And I certainly hope to return because there is so much more to see and to learn.

But what about those things that the Chinese government does not want the rest of the world to see? Working very hard to keep this poster image and somehow succeeding. What about the proponents of the ‘liberalism’ theory of international relations which proposes that the Western liberal values will get planted and automatically bring fruit in places like China through closer ties, trade and co-operation? Is it really working out??? I wish it was. I am no expert on Chinese politics but from what I can hear, read and sense, instead of the liberal values gaining momentum, the system is cracking down and making another hard effort to convince the Chinese people and the rest of the world that exchanging your freedom, including your faith convictions, for some kind of national security, financial gain and state control is a perfectly good way for the future.

Last night I went to hear a lecture by an American historian Stephen Kotkin and few things he said triggered this post because it reminded why many things in our Western approach to Chinese “capitalist” communism does not sit well with me. The most important question is always the personal one – even if my government will not criticize and speak out against these massive human rights abuses, I do have a voice. Small and insignificant but a voice.

After the lecture I had two short conversations and one person used the example of a woodpecker – how it keeps pecking and pecking and pecking until the branch or even the whole tree is hollow enough to come down. I would like to borrow this metaphor. So, while churches are getting closed down, people jailed for all kinds of political, ideological and religious reasons and minority ethnic groups being “Sinicized” in China, we need to keep pecking and pecking… that it is not OK and that we refuse to accept it as the new ‘normal’.