Chinese and Hong Kong civil societies are interconnected beyond borders

Shortly before the 27th anniversary of Tiananmen Square Massacre, the Hong Kong Federation of Students decided to quit the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China despite being one of its founding members. The Alliance is the chief organizer of the annual vigil and march in Hong Kong to commemorate the Tiananmen Square Massacre and has been upholding “building a democratic China” as one of her principal goals. But such a goal is no longer a collective aspiration shared among all student organizations. Many students believe that Hong Kong people should prioritize their goal in building a democratic Hong Kong rather than a democratic China since Hong Kong is in dire straits. So, is “building a democratic China” really outdated?

Indeed, there is no doubt that Hong Kong is in dire straits. The Chinese Central Government has brutally broken its promise to give Hong Kong people genuine universal suffrage and kept intervening the internal affairs of Hong Kong. Chinese authorities were sent from the other side of the border to abduct publishers in Hong Kong. Obviously, the “one country-two systems” has turned into nothing more than a broken promise. In the past, the democratic camp in Hong Kong would demand the Chinese Government to keep her promise of “high degree of autonomy”. However, all these demands have turned into bubbles. On the other hand, the emergence of xenophobic nativism in recent years advocates a complete cut off from China and calls for full independence. However, under the current trend in “one country taking over two systems”, nativism also offers no way out. Despite their different demands, the traditional democratic camp and the xenophobic nativist groups are both restricted by their obsessions in “Hong Kong and China division”.

Obviously, if the current Chinese regime continues her autocratic rule, there is no room for Hong Kong to pursue democracy. Thus, to build a democratic China is no longer an old fashioned goal, but a solution for serious consideration. Likewise, it should not exist simply as a slogan. How to turn it into actions, to support the ever-growing civil resistance in China, is exactly what the Hong Kong democratic movement should look into and get involved.

In China, more and more common people have joined collective actions, to defend their rights when they become victims of corruption, environmental pollution, forced land seizure and labour rights violations, which are the by-products of China’s rapid economic growth in past years. Taking labour movement as an example, China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong based NGO estimated that in 2015, there were 2,944 strikes in China, a 10 times growth in just a few years. These collective actions, not only have stopped certain vicious exploitations, but also helped certain groups of people in developing their rights awareness. Relatively independent civil society organizations have come into existence in the fields of environmental rights, human rights, religious rights, women’s rights, labour rights and etc. in the last decade. They continued to struggle for breathing space in between grey areas to test the tolerance of the authority. With their continuous participation in collective actions, they have accumulated certain social support.

Since Xi Jinping took office, the Chinese Government has taken a heavy-handed approach to suppress the civil society. In March 2015, it launched sweeping arrests, targeting many activists of women’s rights and labour rights, human rights lawyers and etc. This marks the “political dead-end” of civil society movement, which has been tolerated by the authority in the past. It is obvious that Xi is anxious about the growth of civil resistance, especially when he sees the examples of Eastern Europe and Northern Africa. He is worried that civil resistance would evolve into a force of political opposition.

In April 2016, a court in Guangzhou handed down severe prison sentences to three Chinese citizens who showed their support to the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. Such sentences only indicate how paranoid the Chinese Government has become. If Hong Kong and Chinese resistance movement would join hands, domestically and internationally, it will threaten the governance of the current regime and becomes the regime’s worst nightmare. In fact, with a lack of experience and resources, many Chinese organizations have taken Hong Kong as a hub to seek local and international support. When Chinese organizations and their staff members were harassed, suppressed, or arbitrarily detained, the news would first travel to Hong Kong and subsequently release to the international community, which would then monitor the deeds of Chinese Government. Under this background, Chinese Government passed Regulations on the Administration of Foreign NGOs in April 2016, attempting to legally subdue foreign (including HK) support to Chinese organizations and isolate the latter.

If the democratic movement in Hong Kong is to turn its back to its Chinese counterpart, it means each of us will fight our own battle and might run the risk of getting insolated. On the contrary, if Hong Kong civil organizations would use its strength and break through the geographical barriers, to develop better linkage with Chinese civil society and bring in practical support, to help and guide them to an independent and self-sufficient approach, together we will become a democratic force to challenge the autocratic regime eventually.