Hong Kong is in turmoil. Protests are ongoing for nearly four months. Another step in the direction of not resolving the city’s most contentious political crisis since Hong Kong returned to the Chinese rule more than two decades ago is the government’s attempt to ban protesters from wearing face masks with colonial-era emergency legislation.
The mass protests in Hong Kong unfold against a backdrop of territories’ top scores on the freedom indices. One of them, recently-released Fraser Institute Economic Freedom of the World index, again ranks Hong Kong as the freest in the world. Hong Kong is no stranger to economic freedom. In fact, the territory has been maintaining the global economic freedom primacy since 1960, the earliest year for which a measurement of economic freedom is available for Hong Kong. How is this possible?
First, while economic freedom undeniably plays an important role in human well-being, it does not guarantee political rights or personal freedoms. Numerous empirical studies observe a strong relationship between economic freedom and political rights as well as a strong relationship between economic freedom and personal freedom. Their findings make intuitive sense. However, Hong Kong is a noticeable outlier in this regard. Meanwhile, Hong Kong people are no different from those living in other parts of the world; all long to enjoy their freedoms and rights.
Second, personal freedoms are increasingly under threat in Hong Kong. My coauthor, Ian Vásquez, and I use a composite scoring system to measure not only economic freedom but also personal freedom. Our assessment of personal freedom in Hong Kong, published in the Human Freedom Index, reveals that with the invisible hand of China becoming more visible — Hong Kong operates under separate laws within the one country, two systems principle — the rule of law and aspects of personal liberty associated with democracy and political rights, such as freedom of the press as well as freedom of association and freedom of assembly, are under attack. For instance, five Hong Kong booksellers who sold material banned in mainland China disappeared in 2014. In 2016, pro-democracy opposition leaders were thrown out of Hong Kong parliament during the swearing-in ceremony for modifying their oaths of allegiance to China, which was seen as an insult to Beijing. These and other similar events led to Hong Kong’s drop on the personal freedom side of the Human Freedom Index from 17th to 32nd place among 162 countries and territories since 2008. By comparison, 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 index, while China looks more and more like Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, the lowest-ranked countries on personal freedom.
Third, Hong Kong is far from being a full democracy. On the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, Hong Kong ranks 73rd. By comparison, China ranks 130th and is classified as an authoritarian regime. Protests in Hong Kong send an unequivocal message that its citizens do not aspire to live in an autocracy. Instead, they call for more — not less — political rights, and for the territory to resemble more the Nordic countries, which are the most robust democracies in the world. For this reason, Hongkongers’ demand for the assurance of universal suffrage by which they would be able to elect a leader of their choice does not surprise. Further, for Hongkongers, this institutional change represents prevention against encroachment on those of their freedoms and rights that they have managed to protect.
With personal freedoms and political rights on a decline in Hong Kong, it does not surprise that after Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam announced that her government will withdraw the contested bill that would allow extradition to mainland China, which sparked months of protests in the city, the protests did not perish. Instead, they gained momentum. What started as a protest against a single bill in Hong Kong, has not only transpired into Hong Kong’s most severe political crisis since its return to Chinese control in 1997, rather also one of the sternest challenges to the Communist Party authority since the Tiananmen Square pro-reform protest three decades ago.
There is one evident difference between Hong Kong and China. While on mainland China, the legal system is used to silence people who do not support the state, in the semi-autonomous Hong Kong, people have fear but also hope when taking to the streets to protest government’s attempts to undermine the rule of law and deny their rights and freedoms. Ultimately, these protesters might find themselves locked in a prison cell, but they might also get to live in free Hong Kong.
Frequently referred to as pro-democracy activists, Hongkongers are, in fact, rising in the mass protests for both democracy and freedom. Portraying it for the world to see, the unofficial national anthem, Glory to Hong Kong, which is often sung in public spaces throughout the city, is uniting Hongkongers against the suppression of their will to fight for their rights and freedoms. The future will tell whether their freedoms and rights will withstand the attack.