Freedom of expression is under threat in much of the world. One of the saddest stories is in Hong Kong, where the Chinese government has crushed civil liberties and free elections. Unfortunately, similar trends are appearing in the United States.
A British colony during the 20th century, hub of global capitalism, and hotbed of civic and cultural life, Hong Kong entered a 50-year transition to Chinese control as the result of a treaty between the United Kingdom and the Beijing government in 1997.
Under the agreement, the densely-populated peninsula of 7.5 million people was to operate autonomously from China under the principle of “one country, two systems.” Almost from the start, though, Hong Kong citizens pushed for greater freedom, democracy, and independence from a flawed government.
The HK Legislative Council (LegCo), recently reconstituted by the Chinese, includes seats elected by the general population, seats coming from business, industrial, and professional constituencies, and seats from a pro-Beijing Election Committee or electoral college. The Election Committee selects the chief executive. Since its formation in 1998, the government has been controlled by conservative and pro-Beijing political forces, despite pro-democracy parties receiving 55-60% of the popular vote.
Each July 1, the anniversary of the U.K.-to-China handover, Hong Kong protestors have demonstrated for universal suffrage and direct election of all assembly members and the chief executive.
Beginning in 2014, political activism intensified with the emergence of the Hong Kong democracy or “umbrella” movement. Hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers participated in months-long strikes and rallies. Several years of battle with the government followed, culminating with protestors occupying the LegCo building on July 1, 2019.
The following year, the National People’s Congress of China enacted a Hong Kong national security law that prescribed harsh penalties for public protest. Student activists were arrested, pro-democracy legislators removed, and legislative candidates disqualified. The 2020 legislative elections were postponed and the July 1 demonstrations were disrupted, ostensibly due to the COVID crisis. Political dissidents faced a Chinese legal system that offers the accused few protections.
In addition, the Hong Kong government placed greater restraints on freedom of information. Public libraries surrendered books deemed to violate the national security law. A new “patriotic education” curriculum was established in schools. Monuments commemorating the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 were taken down. Even the famed film industry of Hong Kong became subject to censorship.
Over the past 18 months, arrests and trials of pro-democracy leaders continued. Trade and teachers’ unions disbanded. Media entrepreneur Jimmy Lai, founder of the popular Apple Daily, an anti-government newspaper, was imprisoned for violating the national security law and the publication was shut down. Other pro-democracy outlets moved out of the province.
Finally, the National People’s Congress imposed changes for the December 2021 legislative elections, reducing the number of popularly-elected seats. A national security committee screened out “unpatriotic” candidates for chief executive, LegCo, and the Election Committee. Not surprisingly, voter turnout was low and nearly all pro-Beijing party candidates were elected.
Censorship may not be as obvious or abrupt in America as it is in Hong Kong, but free expression here is increasingly in danger.
For example, the U.S. government is not shutting down newspapers, but hundreds of press outlets have closed in the last 20 years. Those that remain are increasingly under the control of media conglomerates and hedge funds, which have stripped newsgathering operations to the bare bones.
In addition to changes in the media business, press freedom has come under attack. Critical reports are dismissed as “fake news.” Singled out by right-wing trolls, reporters have encountered online harassment and death threats. Several lawsuits, including one filed by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, are challenging the landmark case of New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), which gives the press extraordinary protection to hold politicians accountable.
Backlash against Black Lives Matter and other demonstrations produced anti-protest legislation in Republican states. Penalties for blocking traffic and tearing down monuments were imposed, and drivers who strike protesters with their cars were given civil immunity.
Republican governors and GOP-controlled state legislatures are taking aim at academic freedom in public universities and schools. Ten states have enacted “gag-order” bills on teachers, limiting the discussion of race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any “anti-American ideologies.” In addition, local school boards are banning books at an accelerated pace.
There is little doubt that if Republicans take over Congress in the 2022 midterm elections, more attempts to whitewash American history, not to mention impeaching President Biden and waging revenge on Democratic investigators, will be forthcoming.
Add to this ongoing GOP efforts at voter suppression, election subversion, and expulsion of leaders who challenge the Big Lie (Pennsylvania included), and a disturbing trend appears. We are seeing the emergence of two frameworks for regulating civil liberties and elections in the U.S. – a democratic model in Blue states and a Hong Kong regime in Red states.
Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @mcclelef.
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