Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst and a former reporter for the South China Sunday Morning Post
The image of a 12-year-old girl being tackled by several policemen must count as one of the most disgusting scenes to come out of several months of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
According to media reports, the girl was on her way to buy art supplies when she was caught up in the continuing protest over the one-year delay in elections for the territory’s Legislative Council. One video of the incident went viral, viewed more than 1.2 million times.
For a force once regarded as “Asia’s finest,” the confrontation counts as a new low for an institution that has been accused of lying to the courts, humiliating and attacking journalists, ignoring organized attacks on civilians and using disproportionate force on several occasions.
Sept. 6, the day of the protest in question, was to have been election day. But instead almost 300 were arrested that day, some on charges under the new, draconian National Security Law which allows police to make arrests for a variety of reasons, including carrying materials deemed to be treasonous.
In all more than 10,000 people have been arrested since the protests began last year.
“Hong Kong is rapidly moving to pole position in the world league of political arrests on a per capita basis,” wrote columnist and former Eastern Express editor Stephen Vines.
The Hong Kong Police Force is not the only institution in the territory to have its reputation tarnished. Because of unprecedented meddling by the government, the city’s respected courts are at risk of having their impartiality compromised. Just last week, a junior magistrate who acquitted pro-democracy protesters and accused the police of lying was shuffled off the bench and into an administrative position.
Moreover, the National Security Law, which was imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong on June 30 with no notice or consultation, changes the way judges will be selected to hear cases.
Even though the British-Sino Basic Law guaranteed a high degree of autonomy for 50 years after the handover of the territory to China in 1997, Hong Kong is becoming less distinguishable from the mainland. Even its ability to retain its status as a freewheeling business hub is being compromised by a crackdown on local media outlets and foreign journalists, as well as by new powers given to police under the NSL that allow them to force online services to hand over information uploaded by customers and to shut down platforms.
The arrest of Hong Kong media mogul and Apple Daily publisher, Jimmy Lai, in early August for alleged collusion with foreign entities sent a chill through the city’s media community. In scenes unimaginable just a couple of years ago, police could be seen combing through journalists' desks and documents, and frog-marching Mr. Lai in handcuffs through the newsroom.
With the rapidly deteriorating situation in Hong Kong, seeking abode abroad may be the only option for those wanting to continue to enjoy freedom of speech. But even that door appears to be closing with the arrest of 12 Hong Kong people in late August in Chinese waters while trying to flee to Taiwan. China has said they will be dealt with as criminals and that they are suspected of engaging in activities to separate Hong Kong from China – a crime under the NSL.
Given the events of the past weeks, it is entirely possible the Hong Kong government, fearing the city’s best and brightest may flee, will strengthen existing exit controls to discourage a mass exodus. That is why countries such as Canada – which has some 300,000 nationals in Hong Kong – need to act swiftly to ensure locals with foreign passports are able to leave.
With officials in Beijing and Hong Kong seemingly undeterred by sanctions and harsh criticism from overseas, guaranteeing the right of abode overseas of Hong Kong people remains one of the few ways to assist the subjugated.
Meanwhile, with exit routes like Taiwan blocked or becoming more risky, and with the police expanding their powers of arrest, expect protests to become less frequent. Fearing arrest, the protest movement will move further underground and will have to adopt extreme measures to avoid detection.
This is certainly not the Hong Kong we expected to emerge when Britain handed the territory back to China in 1997.
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