Hong Kong and the rose garden promise: Thoughts on the “Fugitive Eight”

Jul 12, 2023
Flag of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China.

Eight Hong Kong dissidents now living abroad are subject to arrest warrants, including Kevin Yam, a Melbourne-based lawyer, and Ted Hui, a former politician who now lives in Adelaide.

This is profoundly depressing news. It is certainly not the “rose garden” of wide-ranging freedom and autonomy that some over-optimistically anticipated.

The Hong Kong government has offered bounty of HK$1 million for information leading to the arrest of Yam and Hui, and six others resident in the UK and the USA. This greatly detracts from government efforts to boost the local economy after Covid and to raise popular morale.

Internationally, some believed that “one country two systems” offered the prospect of full democracy for Hong Kong. These people accept Western media reports alleging that the fugitives are subject to arrest because they are democracy activists. The truth is more nuanced. In the last few years, democracy has been conflated with independence and even secession. How this came about requires some retelling of history.

Let me start by recalling my time in Hong Kong in the 1990s, when the last British Governor, Chris Patten, was locked in negotiations with Beijing regarding the extent of democracy that would be granted to the territory after the British left in 1997. At the time, Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans was one of Patten’s strongest supporters. A stickler for justice and propriety in policy decisions, his decision to back the Governor was based on respect for relevant international and local laws.

The fundamental legal document was Hong Kong’s Basic Law, already agreed to by both sides and recognised by Australia. It had been enacted by the Chinese National People’s Congress in 1990 and would come into effect on the transfer of sovereignty and it drew substantially on the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 that had been signed by Margaret Thatcher and Zhao Ziyang.

Chris Patten, working within the framework of the Basic Law, sought to broaden the electoral base of the three-tier elections to allow the maximum degree of popular participation in government for the Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. Even if Patten had achieved everything he aimed for, it still would have been far short of full democracy. He pinned his hopes, as did the Hong Kong people, on the promise in Basic Law Article 5 that “the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years”, and Article 62 that the “ultimate aim is the election of the all the members of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage”, but, as stated in Article 158, the interpretation of these provisions remained in the hands of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Assembly (SCNPA). Patten’s limited reform package was narrowly passed by the Legislative Assembly with the support of the pro-democracy camp. The vulnerabilities remained, including Articles 158 and 23.

No one at that time questioned the very first Article of the Basic Law. It states, “The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China.” The issue of sovereignty was then and remains still central to Beijing’s concerns, whether regarding Hong Kong, or Taiwan, or Tibet. It is in all these cases the ultimate red line. Those who advocate local or regional independence can expect to feel the full force of Beijing’s wrath.

Article 23, the tricky one, reads,

“The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organisations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organisations of bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organisations or bodies.”

Patten tried to water down the provisions of Article 23 but failed, so the matter was left to be settled by the new administration. The post-handover Legislative Council tried to introduce the necessary legislation but encountered massive popular opposition, and in 2003 withdrew their bill. In 2016, Beijing gave a strongly worded interpretation of the Article, stating it would “neither permit anyone advocating secession in Hong Kong nor allow any pro-independence movement in Hong Kong.” Despite this, or possibly because of it, successive Chief Executives were still unable to counter local resistance to the passing of the necessary legislation.

At this point, the Pan-democrat opposition party became more and more intransigent and some resorted to violence. Street protests grew in scale and passion. Radicals called for the restoration of British rule or even independence. Just as in Tiananmen Square in 1989, calls for democracy covered a variety of grievances and, in some cases, threats to overthrow the government. Given the legislative and administrative impasse, in 2020 the Central Government stepped in and enacted Article 23’s promised security law.

Ted Hui Chi-fung, former Chung Wan Legislative Councillor and member of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, Hong Kong’s virtual opposition Party, resigned from Legislative Council in November 2019 following the disqualification of pro-democracy legislators by the SCNPA. He left Hong Kong a few days later for Europe and moved to Australia in 2021. Hui urged Hong Kong people to boycott the 2021 elections or cast blank ballots, an illegal action that he called “direct, active resistance that shows the will of the people more clearly as it can be seen and counted”. The government then issued an arrest warrant. In April 2021 in an interview for the Australian Financial Review, Hui said,

“The only way to have a possible breakthrough was through resisting and rejecting. It was a call for the people to not accept the status quo. … I am labelled a radical but I consider myself a radical among the moderates.”

Kevin Yam Kin-fung was a lawyer and democracy activist in Hong Kong. In 2015 he successfully moved a motion of no confidence in the President of the Law Society and was a co-founder of the Progressive Lawyers Group (PLG). In 2017 the PLG gave its opinion that the August 31 2014 SCNPA Decision on limited democracy for Hong Kong was “legally unenforceable.”

In an article in the UK Freethinker journal published in June this year, Yam describes how Hong Kong people united in recent years to resist various forms of state control, although ultimately to no end. He is under no illusions, stating,

“Hong Kong is under China’s sovereignty and is ultimately subject to its authoritarian whims. The odds were therefore stacked against Hongkongers even though they were relatively united…. China needs more time and must use less direct methods to gain influence.”

Yam’s sober assessment is an admission that the chief issue facing Hong Kong is sovereignty and security, which in turn determine democracy and freedom. Patten’s reforms were doomed from the outset because they did not accept this reality. The latest round of arrest warrants is the unfortunate outcome of exaggerated expectations. Nevertheless, the arrest warrants and pursuit of the eight activists is of no possible benefit to them, the people of Hong Kong, its government, or to China. I am reminded of the old country and western song, the Rose Garden:

“I could sing you a tune and promise you the moon

But if that’s what it takes to hold you

I’d just as soon let you go.

But there’s one thing I want you to know:

You better look before you leap, still waters run deep

And there won’t always be someone there to pull you out,

And you know what I’m talking about.”

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