As the Chinese Communist Party celebrated its 70 years of rule in China on Tuesday, an 18-year old anti-government student protester in Hong Kong was shot at point blank range in the chest by police.
The contrast between the youth of Hong Kong, demanding political and economic freedoms, and the brutal repression of the Chinese dictatorship could hardly be clearer.
The protests in Hong Kong began on 4 June when one million Hong Kong nationals took to the streets in opposition to a proposed extradition treaty between Hong Kong and China. The treaty, which was withdrawn in September, would have meant Hong Kongers could be extradited for trial on the Chinese mainland, where the conviction rate is 99.9 per cent.
That one million people came out to protest out of a country of seven million demonstrates the deep desire for freedom and independence that runs through Hong Kong. It would have been the equivalent to some 3.8 million Australians turning out to protest, around half of Victoria’s population.
Protestors saw the proposed extradition treaty as another step of Chinese involvement and influence over Hong Kong’s internal affairs.
Hong Kong was a British colony from 1842, when it was ceded from the Chinese following the First Opium War, until 1997. In 1997 the British handed Hong Kong back to China under a model of “one country, two systems”, meaning that Hong Kong would notionally be recognized as a part of China but remain as semi-autonomous city-state.
As a consequence, Hong Kong has its own legal and political system, underpinned by the British common law, the rule of law, and individual rights including freedom of speech, association, and assembly.
Hong Kong is also the most economically free nation in the world, according to the annual Index of Economic Freedom published by the conservative United States think tank the Heritage Foundation.
The index uses measures such as the security of property rights, the ease of starting a business, the extent of personal income and business taxes, and government integrity to rank the economic freedom of 180 nations around the world. As the famous free market economist Milton Friedman once remarked, “if you want see capitalism in action, go to Hong Kong.”
And it is this economic freedom that has allowed Hong Kong to flourish. Hong Kong is an international trading and financial mecca, with an economic growth rate of close to four per cent and an unemployment rate of just three per cent.
But under the British handover agreement, the “one country, two systems” model is due last 50 years and expire in 2047. What will happen to Hong Kong at that point is anyone’s guess.
The protestors see the 800,000 people held in prison camps in mainland China, the mass surveillance state, and the brutal suppression of the minority Muslim Uighur population and fear what may come.
The Chinese Communist Party for its part is clear about its intentions.
On Tuesday at the 70th anniversary celebrations, China’s dictator-for-life Xi Xining said “there is no force that can shake the foundation of this great nation.”
Xi also promised the “peaceful” integration of Hong Kong, as well as Macau and Taiwan with mainland China.
Hong Kong might seem like a universe away from Australia. But through a sophisticated web of power and influence, China is seeking to export its brand of Communism around the world including into Australia.
This can be seen with the one-belt-one-road and Made in China 2025 initiatives.
One-belt-one-road is a land and maritime economic infrastructure program. It involves creating a vast network of highways, energy pipelines, railways, sea-ports, stretching though some 60 nations accounting for more than two-thirds of the world’s population. It has even reached Australia’s shores with the Andrews Labor government signing onto the Communist Party initiative in 2018.
The purpose is to draw signatory jurisdictions closer to Beijing’s orbit in a bid to boost Chinese economic and political influence and pry nations away from the United States.
Alongside sits the Made in China 2025 initiative which is a state-led program aimed at turning China the world’s foremost producer of advanced manufacturing, including in areas involving robotics and artificial intelligence. The program uses state-owned and directed enterprises, government subsides, and the acquisition of intellectual property to become an advanced industrial super-power.
What all of this means is that the free world is facing an increasingly assertive and belligerent China, seeking to shape the global economic and political order around its aspirations and preferences.
And this is why Hong Kong matters. The values of freedom, independence, and self-rule are at stake.
These values speak not just to the protestors in Hong Kong, but to what it means to be human.
There is no dignity without the freedom for individuals to start a small business, form families and communities in which they can flourish, experience the dignity of work, and to collectively and democratically chart the course for their nations’ future.
These are mainstream values not just in Hong Kong, but in Australia and across the western world.
The battle for Hong Kong is the defining civilizational battle of our time. It is the age-old contest between freedom and human dignity over oppression and subjugation.