Posted:  Dec. 13, 2010


Hong Kong may have succeeded in bringing pressure to bear for tainted-milk hero Zhao Lianhai, but protesting the imprisonment of democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo has so far earned only a different kind of attention from the powers that be.  When Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho spoke of the need for continued struggle against countervailing pressures at the Saturday November 27 seminar (Dec. 6 post), he was referring among other things to the heightened police presence at street demonstrations and those protesting the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo are a case in point.

Liu is the controversial writer and democracy advocate who has been in and out of detention since participating in China’s 1989 democracy movement.   Unlike many others of that generation, he remained in China and continued to write.  As a result, he was sentenced on Christmas Day, 2009, to an 11-year prison term for “inciting subversion of state power and the socialist system.” As a further result, he was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize making him China’s most celebrated prisoner of conscience. The Norwegian Nobel Committee has for years been pondering its China problem:  under pressure from human rights campaigners to recognize their efforts, and from Beijing to do no such thing.   Liu’s 11-year sentence for the simple act of posting articles on the internet made him the ideal candidate to solve Oslo’s dilemma.

Liu then pushed his defiance one step further by dedicating the prize to those killed during the government crackdown that ended China’s democracy movement in 1989  —  “the martyrs of Tiananmen,”  who have been airbrushed out of the official Chinese version of  that time.  This defiance has made him a special hero to Hong Kong democrats because he has dared to cite the same 1989 precedents and continue advocating  the same objectives that they champion from the safety of Hong Kong.   So daring is his message, in fact, that among local democrats only the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China (Dec. 6 post) made a point of openly demanding an “end to one-party dictatorship” at the marches and rallies it sponsors.   Banners bearing that slogan became an issue at this year’s June 4 commemorative vigil for the martyrs of Tiananmen when some Alliance members, who belong to the recently-formed radical League of Social Democrats, thought the slogan was displayed less prominently than usual.  Alliance leaders Szeto Wah and Albert Ho are also leaders of the Democratic Party and some feared they would betray the core commitment in order to win favor with Beijing while negotiating electoral reform proposals (Aug. 30 post).   That commitment evokes the 1989 memory of Hong Kong’s then nascent democracy movement, when the belief took hold that Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms could only be guaranteed if China itself became democratic.

The main difference between then and now is that in 1989, Hong Kong’s democracy advocates assumed China would by now be well advanced on the road to their cherished goal.  Instead, the Chinese political system remains as dedicated to one-party communist rule as ever except that those who defied authority then were punished as counter-revolutionaries whereas now they are charged with subverting state power.  And local democrats are under no illusion.  They know that only the legal protection written into Hong Kong’s transitional autonomous status stands between them and Beijing’s definition of political allegiance.


            For those who might still wonder why Hong Kong remains unwilling to pass national security legislation 14 years after returning to Chinese sovereignty, Liu’s case provides a clear answer.  National security is by Chinese legal definition state security, encouraged by a linguistic tradition that uses the same word, guojia, to mean nation, state, and country.  But the problem is political not linguistic because in practice the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) embodies them all.  Hence Liu in advocating an end to one party’s monopoly of power must be guilty of subverting the party-state and the socialist system it leads, which means the socialist party-led political system.  Economics does not signify in this legal Chinese definition of socialism.   To ask, as some here still do, which is more important the party or the country is therefore an unanswerable question.  The two are treated as one and Liu’s “crime” illustrates the point.

According to the court’s December 25, 2009 verdict, Liu Xiaobo was guilty of inciting subversion by reason of the articles he had posted, and specifically as leading co-drafter and organizer of the on-line petition known as Charter 08.*  This manifesto, signed initially by 300 prominent Chinese citizens and later by many more, advocated freedom, democracy, competitive elections, and an end to the monopoly of political power by one party. The petition did not call outright for the overthrow of the CCP, but the implication was clear enough.  Timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights promulgated in December 1948, Charter 08 also deliberately adopted the style of Charter 77, the human rights movement in Eastern Europe that foreshadowed the end of communist rule there.

Charter 08 also reflects assumptions that Liu articulated more explicitly in the 1980s and for which he is now being excoriated in the official Chinese media, namely, that he worships the West and despises China.  Whatever the truth of that accusation, Western political values are obviously the source of his inspiration.  When the CCP came to power in 1949, begins Charter 08, the people were declared sovereign but in fact the party became all-powerful and used that power to produce a string of disasters including the June 4th government crackdown that ended the 1980s democracy movement.  The manifesto goes on to list the fundamental concepts it advocates:  freedom, human rights, equality, republicanism (defined as decentralization of power and balancing of interests) and democracy (meaning that sovereignty resides in the people as manifested through their elected government).

Charter 08’s recommendations for change are entirely non-violent but they are also not incremental.  They call for the complete overhaul of China’s current political system with the introduction of a new constitution, separation of powers, an independent judiciary, legislative democracy, guaranteed human rights, freedom to assemble peacefully, freedom of expression, and freedom to form groups as well as political parties, while abolishing the ability of one party to monopolize all political power.

Many Hong Kongers were among the signatories including the Democratic Party’s Szeto Wah, Albert Ho, and Emily Lau, plus “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung from the League of Social Democrats, Mak Yin-ting, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, and legislator Lee Cheuk-yan who is also a leader of the Hong Kong Alliance.  Luckily we have not yet passed Hong Kong’s Basic Law Article 23 mandate to enact national security legislation against subversion, secession, and sedition, said Lee when the writer’s arrest was announced  in June — otherwise we might all now be sharing his fate.  Liu was detained in early December 2008, just before Charter 08 was due to be posted, and held for six months ahead of his formal arrest in June 2009.


Not since the old Cold War days has any national government been so vitriolic in protesting a Nobel Prize for one its citizens.  Infuriated at what it saw as a direct challenge to its authority, and as part of an ongoing Western effort to destabilize China’s communist government, Beijing prevented everyone associated with Liu including his wife, brothers, and friends, from traveling to Oslo for the customary award ceremonies.  Unwilling to leave it at that, Beijing also pressured the international community to boycott the main December 10th event and convinced 16 other countries, of the 60+ with representation in Oslo, not to attend.   Ultimately, the most important absentee was Liu himself, represented by an empty chair and the actress Liv Ullman who read out his lengthy defense statement that neither he nor his lawyers had been allowed to present during the December 2009 trial.

In contrast, Hong Kong democrats are making the most of its unique status as the only place in China that openly celebrated Liu Xiaobo’s prize  —   and of the heightened police attention they received as a result.  To be fair, demonstrations now seem to occur here almost daily given all the political and economic issues in play, and most protests carry on without incident – except for those with a mainland focus.  It just happens that during the past year, increasing numbers of these protests have had a mainland focus and all inevitably converge on the Central Liaison Office (CLO), Beijing’s official representative in Hong Kong.

As it also happens, the 38-story fortress-like CLO building is difficult to protect.  Hemmed in on all sides, with busy streets and narrow sidewalks front and back, the locality is perfect for police-protestor confrontations.  These began in earnest a year ago, on Christmas Night soon after Liu’s sentence was announced.  Many scuffles and a few high-profile arrests have occurred during the months since.

Everyone’s favorite is the “champagne protest” that occurred in the early hours of Sunday, October 10.  A young woman celebrating the Nobel award was arrested for opening a bottle too close to one of the CLO security guards standing just inside the front gate. He didn’t appreciate the celebratory spray and lodged a complaint with the police who also stand guard day and night just outside the gate.   They obliged by arresting the woman for “common assault” and hauled her off to the nearby police station where she had to post HK$500 bail to avoid spending the rest of the night in jail.  She and a group of friends had walked the mile-and-a-half from the Legislative Council building downtown after deciding Beijing’s liaison office would be a better place to drink their toasts to Liu Xiaobo and eat the Norwegian salmon they had bought as a gesture of thanks to the Norwegian Nobel Committee.  The case was later dropped  —  and the CLO’s front gate has become THE place to open champagne bottles preferably with as big a splash as possible.

No one, of course, is seriously worried about any new threat to law and order.  The police are on heightened alert in response to their sovereign’s demand that the symbols of its authority be respected, suggesting where the real source of conflict lies.  Beijing is facing the same dilemma in Hong Kong that it confronts daily on the mainland, except that Hong Kong has never had to conflate loyalty to the CCP with its patriotic duty and has no interest in replicating that particular aspect of China’s revolutionary history.

Except for the standard critical commentaries in the pro-Beijing press, the local patriotic community, like Hong Kong government officials, had little to say about Liu Xiaobo.  If anyone expected any public expressions of sympathy from this quarter, comparable to that for Zhao Lianhai, they should have known better. Democratic legislators tabled two non-biding motions calling for Liu’s release and both were defeated by their opponents who contributed nothing to the debate beyond Beijing’s official position that the case was, in effect, no one else’s business.

Pan-democrats, on the other hand, organized a full range of activities.  The Hong Kong Alliance coordinated events with support groups in North America and elsewhere, leading up to a joint demonstration outside the Chinese Embassy in Oslo.  Legislators and activists organized their own delegation and Albert Ho was among those on the guest list of Chinese supporters drawn up by Liu’s wife, Liu Xia.    So was Alliance chairman Szeto Wah but he is now too ill to travel.

Back home in Hong Kong, a giant television screen was set up in the garden behind the Legislative Council building to allow public viewing of the award ceremony.  Otherwise, unlike their mainland compatriots, Hong Kongers could watch from the comfort of home, no thanks to the liaison office.  Officials there did what they could to encourage the national blackout norm by cautioning Hong Kong’s four main broadcasters against transmission, but all ignored the warning.

This defiance was on especially clear display during a December 5th protest march to the liaison office.  Some 300 policemen and women were on hand to watch over 500 marchers led by the Hong Kong Alliance and this time no one could miss its most provocative slogans. There were almost as many bright red posters proclaiming Liu’s subversive message  —  “end one-party dictatorship”  —  as there were demands for his release.  But the red placards were also saying something else.

Liu and all his co-signers know how Beijing defines subversion of state power and all were willing to risk the consequences of so serious a charge by putting their names to the manifesto. Everyone who attends the Hong Kong Alliance’s annual June 4th candlelight vigil also understands the implications of that definition, as did all the December 5th marchers.   In this way, Beijing is already being forced to tolerate dissent and to accept the growing rejection of its legal definitions that equate patriotism with unquestioning fealty to party rule.

Meanwhile, more than others, Hong Kongers, are also showing Beijing a way out of its predicament if only it is willing to listen and learn.  They accepted British colonial rule and never tried to liberate themselves from it.  But they also never identified with it, and now they are keeping their new sovereign at arm’s length in the same detached way.  They acknowledge Beijing’s authority but they will probably never identify with CCP rule in its present form, or accept Beijing’s definitions of national political security.  The challenge for Beijing is whether it can learn to accept that new reality.

* English translation by Perry Link, New York Review of Books, Jan. 15, 2009,   Full court verdict (in Chinese), Ming Pao Daily News, Hong Kong, Dec. 26, 2009.

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