October 6, 2019

CHANG | Authoritarianism Close to Home

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The violence and protests in Hong Kong to free the city from China’s grasp escalated to a new point this weekend. Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam invoked a British colonial-era emergency law that banned masks at public gatherings with a maximum penalty of one year in prison for wearing one. Masks have been frequently worn by protestors to hide their identities, and banning them is the first step in an increasingly heavy-handed government response.

The situation has become unavoidable for citizens of Hong Kong, and many Cornellians have families involved or affected by the protests. The efficient subway shut down as an emergency measure to disrupt protests over the mask ban. Stores and malls also closed, making it more difficult to obtain even essential goods.

Yet, the protests look like they’re here to stay. Graduate student Aaron Hui ’15, who studied abroad in Hong Kong and has family connections there, explained, “If China controlled Hong Kong, it would cease to be the Hong Kong that it currently is. Hong Kong is characterized by many freedoms that the mainland does not have and a[n] international position that mainland cities do not have. Hong Kong will just become another Chinese city.”

Although the violence and crackdowns are a continent away, losing the battle against the Chinese Communisty Party in Hong Kong could be a tipping point in the global fight against authoritarianism.

So far, the protestors have five main demands, including a full repeal of the extradition bill that would surrender fugitives to the mainland, an inquiry into police brutality and universal suffrage for citizens. These demands tie into a larger ideological struggle for freedom from China’s strengthening grip on Hong Kong’s political and social systems. Accountant Maggie Chung summed up the necessity of the protest: “If I lose my job, I can find another one. But if Hong Kong is lost, it’s gone forever.”

For students from Hong Kong and Asian Americans, this issue hits a little too close to home. My parents are from Taiwan, a country that has been embroiled in a trilateral conflict with the United States and China over the “One-China policy” since President Jimmy Carter re-established diplomatic ties with Beijing in 1979. This conflict hasn’t escalated beyond diplomatic posturing over arms sales and Chinese gray zone tactics in the East and South China Seas.

But if China is able to fully take over Hong Kong’s government in a show of its power, the situation could become a whole lot worse. The People’s Liberation Army has continued to reorganize and prepare for a cross-strait invasion of Taiwan. China’s defense budget is 14.5 times that of Taiwan. Chinese leaders have already attempted to frame Taiwan for its “involvement” in stirring the Hong Kong protests and the relationship between the two countries has only deteriorated since President Tsai Ing-wen LLM ’80 came into office in 2016. What’s next?

Unsurprisingly, Taiwanese citizens are mostly in support of the protestors. Crowdfunding efforts raised nearly $55,000 for the protestors and a Sept. 29 march in Taipei, Taiwan supported the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. The global alignment for democracy and Hong Kong’s grassroots movements can’t stop. Applying international pressure can combat the crackdown on Hong Kong’s streets, where a teenager was shot on Tuesday, Oct. 1. My parents may have immigrated to the “land of the free,” but I’m still connected to Taiwan. I don’t want it to be just another China.

Since its founding, Hong Kong has been characterized by its cosmopolitan nature: Its long and vibrant history and culture foments its unique status as a Special Autonomous Region of China. China’s takeover of the city would install a repressive authoritarian government simply for the CCP’s gain while destroying universal values of freedom and justice. As another student from Hong Kong I spoke to remarked, “It would mean a Hong Kong where people dare not do anything to offend the government for fear of being extradited . . . It would mean a Hong Kong stripped of its freedom, and it terrifies me.”

Let’s fit our approach to these protests within a wider conversation about global authoritarianism and the limits of government. In March, I argued against U.S. presidents’ repeated use of emergency powers to justify their actions. As alarmist as it might sound to think about tanks “rolling down Tower Road,” civil liberties are important for us to keep as students. We need the right to assembly and protest — otherwise, how can we have gatherings like the Willard Straight sit-in or marches against school shootings that result in political change? We need reminders that government crackdowns and authoritarian power grabs like the one in Hong Kong could happen anywhere.

As an institution, Cornell doesn’t have the best record of preserving civil liberties. Think about the twisting and turning hallways of Ujaama and Ives. These buildings were built with a purpose: to inhibit student gatherings and protest activity. Presumably, administrators wanted to ensure quiet cooperation by targeting what they thought would be hotbeds of unrest.

Acts by foreign governments or our own University that prevent civil response from those affected are problematic. We must bolster an environment for freedom of thought and action. Although authoritarianism may begin or fester a world away, the second- and third-order consequences are felt close to home.

Darren Chang is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at dchang@cornellsun.com. Swamp Snorkeling runs every other Monday this semester.