2017: The year that shook Hong Kong's democracy

With arrests and tensions with mainland China, developments of 2017 seen by many as highly detrimental to city's democracy movement.

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    2017: The year that shook Hong Kong's democracy
    This year saw an unprecedented number of pro-democracy or anti-government rallies [File: Bobby Yip/Reuters]

    Hong Kong - Catastrophic, dire, devastating.

    Just some of the words democracy supporters used to describe this year in a poll on Hong Kong's struggle to safeguard its autonomy.

    James Andrew Rice, human rights advocate and philosophy professor at Lingnan University, said a number of his students took part in the 2014 Occupy, or Umbrella, Movement that defined Hong Kong's fight for democracy.

    It never occurred to him they could end up behind bars.

    "I found myself writing letters to students in prison," he told Al Jazeera. 

    "It's a shocking thing for me as an educator in Hong Kong, students imprisoned for nothing more than expressing a desire of democracy," he said. 

    In 2016, the three student leaders who led the 79-day pro-democracy protests of 2014 - Nathan Law, Joshua Wong and Alex Chow - were tried and sentenced to community service for storming government buildings and inciting others to take part in unlawful assembly.

    They completed their non-custodial sentences but the government, in July 2017, called for harsher punishment.

    On August 27 they went back to court. All three were given prison sentences.

    Joshua Wong, 20, was sent to a maximum security facility.

    The three young men became known as Hong Kong's first political prisoners.

    The ruling was widely condemned, and for the first time, the independence of the city's judiciary was in doubt.

    Rice, who's been teaching in Hong Kong for 25 years, says it has been grim year of shock and repeated disappointments, which has left many young people disillusioned.

    "Hong Kong people have always been forced to adapt to situations beyond their control, the basics of being a Hong Kong person, being able to adapt to these unforeseen circumstances," Rice said.  

    "Young people see so little hope in terms of being able to carve out a life for themselves here, politics apart."

    2017 was the year Jason Tang lost his enthusiasm for a democratic Hong Kong.

    I met him at the bar-cafe he manages.

    Nestled in a trendy enclave of Wanchai district, there is a live band playing, and waiters buzzing about the ultra-fashionable clientele.

    In a flawless American accent, the 27-year old Hong Kong millennial tells me he would rather not use his real name. He's worried speaking to us would hurt his chances of working in mainland China in the future.

    He admits he did join the first two weeks of the 2014 Occupy Movement but felt it had no direction and wouldn't achieve anything.

    He used to take part in pro-democracy rallies but now, he says, "there are so many of them, there is no longer any impact".

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    He may have a point.

    There was was an unprecedented number of pro-democracy or anti-government rallies this year, yet China has tightened its grip on the city.

    Political observers say the developments of 2017 have been highly detrimental to Hong Kong's democracy movement.

    The government had promoted it as a year of celebrations, marking 20 years since the handover, the transition from a British colony to a Special Administrative Region of China.

    In the weeks before and after, the government laid on a banquet of events and parades. Fireworks filled the sky on the July 1 anniversary.

    Chinese President Xi Jinping graced the city with his presence, calling Hong Kong "a place that always affected my heart" as thousands of protesters gathered in Victoria Park chanting "Down with the Communist Party".

    The divide between those who want to preserve Hong Kong's autonomy and those who lean towards Beijing has never been so wide.

    The past year also saw a new phenomenon: fans booing or refusing to stand while the Chinese national anthem, which Hong Kong shares, was played before a football match.

    Despite pleas from the Football Association and warnings that there could be repercussions, fans continued to jeer March of the Volunteers at every international game at home.

    So now, the government is drafting a local version of the mainland China law that harshly punishes anyone who disrespects the national anthem, moving the city's laws closer to those across the border.

    Beijing's support in North Point

    North Point is a rapidly gentrifying area of Hong Kong island. In the world's most expensive city in terms of residential prices, it is still considered affordable.

    Walk down the streets, and you will hear Mandarin intermingled with Cantonese.

    It's an area that attracts a lot of mainland migrants.

    I choose a row of locally owned shops. The short street is lined with all kinds of enterprises, from traditional Chinese medical stores and fruit and clothes stalls to small eateries.

    Most admit they support Beijing and say the fight for democracy is a waste of time and resources.

    But no one wants to elaborate, no one wants to talk politics; they would rather tell me how difficult it is to make a living in the city with skyrocketing rents.

    "Hong Kong is dying," a laundry owner says. "Write about that. Forget everything else, forget politics. We can't even live day to day."

    Throwing a sandwich

    It's a sentiment former legislative councillor candidate Avery Ng would agree with.

    "I have the luxury to make a choice, but for many others, especially the oppressed ones, the grass-roots people who are fighting to put food on the table, they are just fighting to survive."

    Ng, 41, is the chairman of the League of Social Democrats, a radical pro-democracy political party.

    He is currently on bail after being convicted of assault.

    Last year, he threw a fish sandwich at the then chief executive CY Leung. He missed, and the sandwich struck a police officer.

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    He has several other cases against him stemming from democracy protests.

    His take on 2017? "It was the fastest deterioration of autonomy since the handover period. Over the past 12 months, it was very significant how the Chinese government treated the Hong Kong government.

    "We've seen blatant disregard for Hong Kong rule of law. Disregard the joint declaration signed by the British government through a series of events.

    "This includes severe and unjust prosecution by the Department of Justice to lock up protesters and student leaders, to more recently how they bypassed the legislative council to pass the cross-border arrangement for the high-speed rail."

    Blow to autonomy

    Ng is referring to what's being seen as the latest blow to Hong Kong's autonomy.

    On December 27, Beijing formally approved a controversial plan for mainland officials to enforce national laws in a designated area of a train terminus in Hong Kong.

    The West Kowloon station of the planned Hong Kong-Shenzhen high-speed rail link will have a facility for mainland officials to process customs and immigration.

    It will be the first time mainland law enforcement officials will operate on Hong Kong soil.

    The Chinese government is systematically stripping away Hong Kong people's political freedom.

    Ng, chairman of the League of Social Democrats

    The Hong Kong bar association released a statement saying it was appalled by the arrangement.

    Ng says there are so many issues to lament this year, including how almost all the pro-democracy legislative councillors who were voted in directly have been removed.

    He is also concerned about the latest move to change the rules of procedure in the Legislative Council, Hong Kong's de-facto parliament.

    It would essentially take away the power of legislators to halt or examine any new laws or directives being implemented.

    "The pro-establishment have changed rules for the Legislative Council internal procedure.

    "This strips off whatever remaining power we have in monitoring the government. The Chinese government is systematically stripping away Hong Kong people's political freedom.

    "Giant steps backwards and I don't see any intention from the Chinese government to redeem itself."

    'We shall overcome'

    This year, four opposition legislators were removed for the way they took their oaths. It was the result of Beijing's move to re-interpret the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution.

    I meet Joshua Wong outside Shau Kei Wan metro station. Microphone in hand he is urging passers-by to support his Demosisto party candidate, Agnes Chow, in the upcoming by-elections to fill vacant Legislative Council seats.

    He is out on bail appealing his sentence. He could be back behind bars after the hearing at the Court of Final Appeal on January 16, so he's using every minute he has to continue the fight for democracy.

    "Hong Kong turned from a semi-democracy city to a semi-authoritarian city, which means that the tactics and the way for the government to suppresses us changed and become more hardline," Wong told Al Jazeera. 

    Joshua Wong (left), Nathan Law (centre) and Alex Chow were jailed in 2017 [The Associated Press]

    Hope in Hong Kong people

    I recount all the events this year that have dented Hong Kong's autonomy. There are many, but Wong still says he is not disheartened.

    "I have seen hope in Hong Kong people, especially when I was in jail," he said.

    "Tens of thousands of people took to the streets to show their support for us, the political prisoners. It made me aware that I am not alone."

    But the hurdles for democrats will keep piling on.

    Analysts say as Xi starts a second five-year term as president, consolidating and tightening his hold on China, there will be little tolerance for dissent from Hong Kong.

    His vision is to bring the city in line with the rest of China.

    Hong Kong still has many freedoms unthinkable in the rest of the country.

    One of them will be exercised on the first day of 2018 for the annual pro-democracy new year rally, with many wondering how much longer they will be able to express themselves like that.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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