At 76 years old, I never expected to be tear-gassed in Hong Kong, my once peaceful home. Like many of the other tens of thousands of calm and nonviolent protesters in the Hong Kong streets last Sunday, I was shocked when the pro-democracy crowd was met by throngs of police officers in full riot gear, carrying weapons and wantonly firing canisters of tear gas. After urging the crowd to remain calm under provocation, I got hit by a cloud of the burning fumes.
The protesters persevered. They ran away when gassed, washed their faces and returned with raised hands. But the police continued to escalate the crisis. Their aggressive actions hardened the resolve of Hong Kongers, many of them too young to vote, to defend our freedoms. These include the long-promised right to elect our leader — a right that was effectively ruled out in late August when the government in Beijing said that candidates for the city’s top executive post must be vetted by a nominating committee filled with Chinese government allies.
The riot police pulled back on Monday morning and since then the government has chosen a wait-them-out strategy. At times downtown Hong Kong has felt like a street festival: bands have appeared and tents have sprouted up. Young people chat, lounge, poke at their phones and sleep. Thursday night the atmosphere turned tense when Leung Chun-ying, the city’s chief executive, held a news conference in which he refused to resign. But by and large, Hong Kongers are relaxed and determined.
Why are we protesters — including the many high school and university students among us who have their whole lives ahead of them — fighting for our rights in the city’s streets?
Because this is a last stand in defense of Hong Kong’s core values, the values that have long set us apart from China: the rule of law, press freedom, good governance, judicial independence and protection for basic human rights. Beijing’s heavy-handed response earlier this week made it clearer than ever that our future as a free society is at stake.
It is young people on the frontline of the protests — including many who weren’t born when the territory was handed over from Britain to China in 1997 — who understand this most clearly. They don’t want to spend their lives in a Hong Kong that becomes like just another mainland city, corrupted by cronyism and a duplicitous one-party system. They value academic freedom and the ability to speak and write freely.
The protest will reach a crisis point, one we cannot win alone. In order for us to attain the rights that Beijing has promised, the rest of the world has to stand with Hong Kong. That includes the many multinational companies whose prosperity depends upon our free markets and open-and-honest society, but more important, it includes the world’s free democracies. Hong Kongers deserve more vigorous backing from Washington and London, which pledged to stand by us before the handover in 1997, when Beijing made the promises it is now so blatantly breaking.
Both Washington and London, in their failure to come out strongly in favor of the peaceful democracy protesters, have effectively sided with Beijing in a disgraceful display of power politics.
My biggest fears are twofold. If Beijing, in an attempt to defuse the situation, steps back from confrontation, offering a few meaningless carrots to the demonstrators and diplomatic bromides to the international community, the demonstrations — and the media attention so necessary to keep them going — may lose force. In that case, time is on Beijing’s side.
What would be worse, of course, is if the mandarins in Beijing conclude that global censure is meaningless, that overreacting with tear gas and violence against peaceful protesters will cost them nothing but a few weak protestations from the world community.
The people of Hong Kong have waited for decades for China to honor its promise that we would rule our city with a “high degree of autonomy.” This commitment was made in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, an international treaty registered at the United Nations — and applauded by the world when it was announced. China’s determination to ignore its promises and to control the election of Hong Kong’s next chief executive has created this dangerous climate.
Britain signed the Joint Declaration with Beijing and must act now that it is being violated. The United States is an effective guarantor of that treaty, and President Obama’s policy should be governed by the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act, which states that the survival of Hong Kong as a free society is in America’s interest. London and Washington have leverage with Chinese leaders and the duty to urge China to honor its international treaty obligations.
China’s leadership could still use its better judgment, as it has done before. In 2003, Beijing tried to force Hong Kong to pass legislation that would have rolled back religious, press and political freedoms. There was a massive peaceful demonstration on July 1, 2003. The chief executive at that time, Tung Chee-hwa, was eventually forced out of office and the law was shelved.
Beijing should stop dictating the outcome of Hong Kong’s elections and threatening the pillars of our society, not least so that China itself can advance with Hong Kong as its model.
The message of the past week is clear: The people of Hong Kong will fight for our freedom and way of life. At a time when the world is wondering if China will be a responsible member of the global community, Hong Kong has become the essential test.
Martin Lee is a longtime democracy advocate and the founding chairman of the Democratic Party of Hong Kong.