The emphatic weekend verdict by the people of Hong Kong is a pronouncement much bigger than that city. It is a vote of “no confidence” in Beijing from some of the people who know it best. Twice as many people turned out to vote in the local district elections than at the last ones four years ago.
And it wasn’t the weightiness of local district affairs – rubbish collection and public parks, for instance – that brought more than 71 per cent of eligible voters to the ballot box, compared with the previous record high turnout of under 50 per cent.
The people of Hong Kong voted to at least treble the number of pro-democracy district councillors, pending final results. While they won 100 seats last time around, this time it’ll be at least 333 of the 452 seats contested, according to local media estimates. On Saturday, pro-government and pro-Beijing parties controlled all 18 of the city’s district councils. By Monday morning they had just one.
Just under 3 million voted in such strength and with such force because the great majority of the people of Hong Kong have the same fear as the protesters – that this is their last chance to protect their remaining liberties from the encroachments of Beijing.
To do so, they overlooked or forgave the worst excesses of the protesters – the 70-year-old street cleaner murdered with a brick, the man set alight for defending Beijing in an argument, the bows and arrows fired into the police ranks. And, in effect, the Hong Kong people laughed off the Beijing narrative – that the protesters are “anarchists” and “terrorists” sponsored by Western governments. The pro-government and pro-Beijing parties were humiliated.
The implications are global. Of the places in the world where free speech can still be practised, Hong Kong is the one most familiar with the Chinese government’s tactics and techniques. They’ve seen the China of President Xi Jinping ignore the Basic Law that is supposed to guarantee the city’s freedoms. They see close-up how people are treated in mainland China. And they are afraid.
Instead of rejecting the violence of the street-level protesters, Hong Kong people have adopted them as their last line of defence against the world’s most powerful authoritarian state.
“What we badly need is dialogue,” says Anson Chan, the chief secretary of Hong Kong’s government under both British rule and later under Chinese mainland rule. “Beijing needs to let go of this mentality that everything has to be forced,” she told me some weeks ago. “Patriotism has to be earned, and the only way you can get that is to go back to the Basic Law and Deng’s promise. No one in Hong Kong wants to overthrow Beijing; it’s about clawing back HK’s autonomy and civil liberties.”
Fundamentally, the Chinese Communist Party cannot cope with liberty. At home or abroad. It has grave difficulty with anything – cultural identity, religion, speech – that it is not wholly confident that it can control. Not content to massacre its students in Tiananmen Square and control its population through a police state, Beijing is imposing the techno-surveillance of a “social credit” system for population micro-management.
Not content to annexe Tibet, the Chinese authorities crushed its people’s cultural and religious freedom long ago. Not content to subdue the Uighur people of China’s Xinjiang “autonomous” region, Xi is committing cultural genocide through mass detention and brainwashing.
Not content to be the dominant trading partner for more than 120 of the world’s countries, Beijing wants to control their internal debates about China, stifle free enquiry in their universities and cement governments worldwide into the China-funded patronage network of its Belt and Road.
And, not content to have Australia fawning all over it in pursuit of easy economic gain, China’s government wants to take control of its political system for good measure. “The West has a simple and naive view of the Chinese Communist Party,” says Chan. “It’s very pervasive and it has relentless machinery and tentacles. I don’t think they will stop. For liberal democracies everywhere, are you prepared to see your values supplanted by those of mainland China?”
Beijing’s overreach is producing the beginnings of a resistance in much of the world. Australia was one of the earlier developed democracies to wake to China’s intrusions. The Turnbull government’s ban on Huawei and its foreign interference laws were the clearest signs. But now Australia is being tested again. Test one: The foreign interference laws are feebly enforced so far. The transparency register of foreign agents is a bit of a joke to date.
Test two: The man now seeking asylum in Australia as a Chinese spy, Wang “William” Liqiang, should be given it. Whether he is ultimately confirmed as a serious intelligence asset or frightened minor functionary. Why? If you are in Australia seeking asylum, and reasonably fear persecution if returned to your country of citizenship, the law says you are entitled to protection. Regardless of what thunderbolts Beijing may throw at Canberra in response.
Test three: The apparent effort by Chinese intelligence to plant an agent of Beijing’s influence in the Federal Parliament exposes Australian vulnerability afresh. We know that the alleged target, Melbourne car dealer Bo “Nick” Zhao, went to ASIO with his dilemma and was found dead in a Melbourne motel room in March. We don’t yet know the cause of death, now a matter for the coroner. But we are left with the impression that Australia’s security agencies didn’t protect him terribly well.
If Australia wants the trust and cooperation of concerned citizens under duress from Beijing in future, Canberra needs to do better. It can start with a searching investigation of the Zhao case and a serious follow-up, not a cover-up, of the findings.
Test four: Knowing it is possible Beijing aims to infiltrate an MP into Parliament, Australia needs to require all new MPs and senators to go through a security check. Many Australians will be amazed to hear that it’s not a requirement already. Only then will the cloud of suspicion lift, and the public be reassured.
A noted pro-democracy figure in Hong Kong, former legislator Martin Lee, said recently: “We’re proving that Beijing’s power is not invincible or inevitable. We’re demonstrating that failure is not falling down but refusing to stand up.” The people of Hong Kong are waging a desperate, last-gasp effort to keep their liberties. Australia should heed their lesson and stand up now.
By Peter Hartcher