Hong Kong Fights for More Than Rule of Law

This article appeared on Svensk Tidskrift on September 13, 2019.
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Last week Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam announced that her government will withdraw the controversial bill that would allow extradition of Hong Kong’s citizens to mainland China, undermining the rule of law by and sparking three months of protests across the city in the process. However, demonstrations are unlikely to end anytime soon.

The protests have now gained momentum, andpeople who took to the street are standing firm behind their other demands. Most notably, they demand assurance of universal suffrage, by which the people of Hong Kong would be able to elect a leader of their choosing. While Beijing has ruled out this demand, for Hongkongers this change is represents prevention against encroachment on their freedoms. Many would argue these violations are already taking place, if recent events are any indication. Hongkongers are likely apprehensive that the upcoming institutional change slated for 2047, when Hong Kong is expected to fully become a part of China, is transpiring already.

Calls for more democratic political institutions do not surprise, as Hong Kong is far from being a full democracy. On the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2018 Democracy Index Hong Kong can ranks 73rd among 167 countries and territories. By comparison, China ranks 130th and is classified as an “authoritarian regime.” Protests in Hong Kong clearly and powerfully display show that itscitizensdo not aspire to live in an autocracy. Instead, they look up to Norway, Iceland, and Sweden, countries with the most robust democracies in the world, for acquiring even more political rights than they already have.

As the protests in Hong Kong are not winding down, it has become palpable that the city’s most contentious political crisis since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule more than two decades ago is not only about people’s demand for strong rule of law and more democratic political institutions, butalso making sure that  Hongkonger’s freedoms are protected. On mainland China, the legal system is used to silence people who do not support the state. In Hong Kong, people are taking to the streets to protest government’s attempts to undermine rule of law as well as attack their freedoms.

In the Human Freedom Index (HFI) 2018, my coauthor Ian Vásquez and I document a steady and persistent erosion of personal freedom in Hong Kong since 2008. Most notably, under attack are aspects of personal liberty associated with democracy and political freedom—freedom of the press as well as freedom of association and freedom of assembly. Since 2008, Hong Kong dropped on the personal freedom side of the HFI from 17th to 32nd place among 162 countries and territories. China dropped from 129th to 141st place in the same period. With these trends in mind, Hong Kong looks less and less like the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries that top the personal freedom side of the HFI, while China looks more and more like Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, the lowest-ranked countries on personal freedom.

Finally, Hongkongers also fear erosion of their economic freedom, which has historically been the highest in the world, and noticeably higher  than on mainland China but also. As such, Hong Kong again tops the recentlyreleased Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World (EFW) index, followed by Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland, the United States, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and Mauritius (tied for 9th). AndHongkongers  have enjoyed the world’s highest economic freedom for decades. The earliest measure of economic freedom for Hong Kong goes back to 1960. Already then, the EFW index reveals, people in Hong Kong enjoyed more economic freedom than those living in Canada, the United States, Switzerland, Germany, and interestingly also the United Kingdom. That said, economic freedom does not guarantee political or personal freedom, just like democratic political institutions do not guarantee economic or personal freedom.

Over the years, China has been moving from one country, two systems to one country, one system to fully integrate Hong Kong with the rest of the country. The protests in Hong Kong unequivocally object to such transition in instances when the rights and freedoms of the citizens are threatened.

Tanja Porčnik

Tanja Porčnik is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. Porčnik is a senior fellow of the Fraser Institute, as well as president and co-founder of the Visio Institute. She is co-author of The Human Freedom Index.