Hong Kong Legislator: 'All Hong Kong's People Want Is Democracy'

Officially, the months-long protest movement engulfing Hong Kong has resulted from a proposed extradition law that could have made its residents vulnerable to mainland China’s legal system. But in a panel discussion held Thursday at Asia Society New York, two members of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council said that the crisis actually reflects a deeper problem: The territory’s unique identity is increasingly under threat from sustained Chinese pressure.

"All Hong Kong’s people want is democracy, as promised under the Basic Law," said lawmaker Dennis Kwok. "That promise has failed."

"Are we asking for the moon here?" added Kwok’s colleague Alvin Yeung. "Are Hong Kong people being so unreasonable in making these demands? No, not at all!"

The crisis intensified last weekend as protesters clashed with police officers and disrupted service at the international airport, one of the world’s busiest. At Thursday's panel, Kwok and Yeung sharply criticized Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive, for introducing the extradition law and for her intransigence in the face of sustained opposition. In June, Lam suspended the controversial law — but she has subsequently resisted demands that she scrap it entirely and establish an independent commission to investigate the recent political turmoil. Although the chief executive remains in office, her standing in the territory has diminished and her fate remains uncertain.

"Carrie Lam made a serious misjudgment in thinking that Hong Kong would accept this extradition law," said Kwok. "She got that totally wrong."

The two lawmakers described Hong Kong’s future as a competition between two competing systems of government: mainland China’s authoritarianism and Western liberal democracy, which Kwok defined as including the rule of law, an independent judiciary, basic freedoms, and due process. "These two values are in conflict," he said. "Hong Kong is a good reflection of what we see globally, which is a contest between [them]."

Mainland China has blamed the United States for Hong Kong’s crisis, claiming Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), two high profile members of Congress, have "incited chaos" in the territory. This is consistent with China’s tendency to characterize grassroots political movements, such as the "color revolutions" that swept Eastern Europe and Central Asia earlier this century, as being fomented by foreign forces. Some American politicians have issued statements that might justify this paranoia: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), for example, praised Hong Kong's protesters for waving the American flag and singing the American national anthem.

The Trump administration, however, has not echoed these sentiments. On Wednesday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross referred to the events in Hong Kong as an "internal matter" in an appearance on CNBC. And on Thursday, Politico reported that President Donald Trump told Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in June that he would not condemn China over a crackdown in Hong Kong lest it interferes with the U.S.-China economic relationship.

Kwok addressed the Trump administration’s hands-off approach. "The U.S. and all Western countries have a stake in Hong Kong," he said Thursday. But, Yeung added, "we’re not here to lobby the U.S. government. We’re here to tell the truth."

Whether a peaceful resolution of Hong Kong’s crisis is forthcoming or not, the broader issues underscoring protests over the extradition law will remain central to the territory’s future. 

"When we talk about liberal democracy, we’re not talking about something in the abstract," said Yeung. "Hong Kong has practiced liberal democracy for the past 100 years — it’s what makes Hong Kong successful."

"If China is so against it, why on Earth did they promise 'one country, two systems' — and then take full advantage of that system?"

About the Author

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Matt Schiavenza is the Assistant Director of Content at Asia Society. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Fortune, and strategy + business among other publications.