Opening the Umbrella Movement: A Pivotal Moment for Human Rights in Hong Kong—and China, Too

A citizen covers his face from police-fired tear gas in a single frame from a video taken with an iPhone on October 7 during Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement protests (User Pasu Au Yeung, Flickr Commons) Hong Kong and China are very different places when it comes to their records on human rights. Hong Kong is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), whereas China is only a signatory. Hong Kong is ranked Partly Free in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report for 2014, whereas China is ranked Not Free. And Hong Kong is ranked Partly Free in Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press report for 2014, whereas China is again ranked Not Free.

These differences provide important context for the ongoing “Umbrella Movement” protests in Hong Kong, which will likely impact the human rights situation in both Hong Kong and China. Optimists have looked to Hong Kong’s economic importance in the hopes that Beijing might agree to follow through with its commitment to the “one country, two systems” policy until 2047. Some have even projected that the presidency of Xi Jinping would usher in an era of meaningful political reform in China. Unfortunately, recent events have provided discouraging answers in both cases.

Article 27 of the Hong Kong Basic Law guarantees the freedoms of speech, press, and publication. Yet, when Hong Kong citizens took to the streets to protest an August ruling by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC), police did nothing to protect them from thuggish attacks by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) supporters. They instead responded aggressively by tear-gassing the crowd—a clear violation of the right to peaceably assemble, which has been long-protected in Hong Kong. Police also arrested numerous citizens, including a key student leader, Joshua Wong, who was detained for more than forty hours and only released after his lawyers filed a habeas corpus petition. Notably, that legal action that eventually freed Wong is an option that does not even exist in China.

The protests, and Chinese response to them, signal a pivotal turning point for Hong Kong. It will be difficult to maintain “one country, two systems” in the face of both a continued push by China to assume control of Hong Kong and growing popular support within Hong Kong for democracy and human rights. How leaders address the current impasse will factor heavily into whether Hong Kong will retain its unique place as a financial center in Asia, or whether it becomes just another Chinese city racked with corruption, censorship, and pollution.

The Chinese government’s response also illustrates broader trends that will likely develop for human rights in China. First, current CCP leadership will probably continue to avoid undertaking any meaningful democratic reforms on the mainland. Second, there will likely be escalating anxiety within the CCP alongside increased anti-foreign rhetoric and more stringent censorship on the mainland. The CCP’s increased anxiety is not entirely unfounded. A hunger for democracy still exists among the Chinese public, a curiosity and appetite for narratives that challenge one-party rule. In response, the CCP is likely to reflexively rely on tactics including uniting citizens behind a common foreign enemy and defensively employing censorship as a smokescreen.

The United States and the international community can and must take action regarding Hong Kong. Publicly supporting the people of Hong Kong in their quest for democracy is not only morally right but pragmatic as well. A free and democratic Hong Kong is also an economically prosperous Hong Kong, which makes for better business and stronger partnerships. Multilateral efforts worthy of pursuit include a United Nations resolution urging the Hong Kong government to genuinely implement the ICCPR, a visit to Hong Kong by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association to assess whether the government is honoring citizens’ rights to freely assemble and associate, and identifying points of economic leverage that would put pressure on Chinese authorities to respect Hong Kong’s special status.

The U.S. Congress can also play a powerful role by passing bills currently spearheaded by Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio. These pieces of legislation would require the State Department to report to Congress on “the development of democratic institutions in Hong Kong” as well as maintain vigorous Radio Free Asia and Voice of America broadcasting in Cantonese. They would also tie any U.S. political or economic differential treatment toward Hong Kong—as opposed to China as a whole—to that region’s veritable autonomy.

At Hong Kong’s 1997 handover of sovereignty to China, the question could be asked, “Will Hong Kong positively infect the rest of China with its freedoms, or will China negatively infect Hong Kong with its lack of them?” Some 17 years later, the Umbrella Movement protests constitute a crucial juncture for answering that question. The response by the international community to this issue matters to the future freedom of China as a whole, and the Chinese people will be watching. Now is not the time for the United States—or, indeed, any self-respecting democratic nation—to remain either coy or silent.


Portions of this article originally appeared as testimony given by the author before the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China on November 20, 2014.