By Elaine Dunn

Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law are names well-known to Hong Kong democracy activists, the HK Police and, probably, Beijing.  As of January 31, they were also officially “introduced” to the Nobel Foundation, thanks to 12 U.S. congressmen from both sides of the aisle.  

In a move that may create more tension to an already tense U.S.-China relation, the 12 nominated Wong, Chow and Law for the Nobel Peace Prize for the trio’s efforts and leadership roles during the mostly peaceful 2014 Umbrella Revolution -- the largest pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong’s history.  The three were sentenced and served prison sentences for their 2014 pro-democracy activities.

The congressmen’s letter of nomination stated, “Wong, Law and Chow and the entire ‘umbrella movement’ embody the peaceful aspirations of the people of Hong Kong who yearn to see their autonomy and way of life protected and their democratic aspirations fulfilled.”

The Nobel Peace Prize nomination is a first for Hong Kong and it could not have come at a more serendipitous time!  

Beijing has been encroaching on Hong Kong affairs increasingly.  Under Hong Kong’s “Basic Law,” (its constitution), Hong Kongers are guaranteed freedom of speech, assembly and demonstrations.  However, it is clear the rights of the three student activists were infringed upon because their activities were not acceptable to Beijing and its agenda for Hong Kong.  

Hong Kong’s standing in various freedom indices had continued to drop on all fronts.  

The metropolis now ranks the same as Namibia and Paraguay in The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index.  That’s a drop of three spots from 2016.  Hong Kong also lost its spot as the world’s freest jurisdiction – a position it had held for the past two years, according to the 2017 Human Freedom Index compiled by Canada’s Fraser Institute, a think tank that uses 79 indicators for personal, civil and economic freedoms in ranking 159 countries.  On the 180-country Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, Hong Kong has continued to sink lower and lower, from 61 in 2007 to 69 in 2016 and, 73 in 2017.  The Press Freedom Index reflects the degree of freedom journalists, news organizations and netizens enjoy in that country, including the free flow of information on the internet.  

Collectively, it’s quite apparent these indices’ rankings show Hong Kong’s press freedom and the freedom of expression have been coming under increasing attack.  The health and future of journalism and Hong Kongers’ rights are in jeopardy.  This led Divya Gopalan of Al Jazeera to point out in 2015 that “Hong Kong had ranked among the top 20 spots for press freedom only a little over a decade ago, so what went wrong?”  

China’s booming economy may be responsible.  It has allowed China to infiltrate the media in Asia, especially in Hong Kong.  In 2014, the independent Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit group whose mission is to “defend the right of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal,” reported that more than half of Hong Kong’s media owners were “members of China’s parliament or its advisory body.”  Furthermore, many advertisers are now Chinese companies who have no qualms of pulling their advertising dollars should the editorial not suit them.

Since 2012, several journalists have come under vicious physical attacks for stories not in line with the Hong Kong government’s narrative.  Booksellers have been abducted and detained in China for publishing and selling materials critical of members of the Chinese Communist Party.  Outspoken journalists resigned abruptly, leaving many to wonder if they were forced out.  These suppressive tactics are not letting up.  This past January, the latest sign of Beijing’s intimidation of Hong Kong’s citizens and interference in Hong Kong elections came when Agnes Chow, a known democracy activist, was barred from running in the March by-elections to the city’s legislature.  Chow was hoping to fill one of seats vacated by six lawmakers who were disqualified in 2017 as a result of their pro-democracy and self-determination protests while taking their swearing-in oaths.

Journalists are doing their job when they make their readers think and evaluate their existing beliefs, and ultimately uncover and present the truth.  To do this, they need the protection of free speech in order to present dissenting and opposing viewpoints, as uncomfortable as that may be for their readers and, more importantly, for those in power.   

Beijing does not subscribe to this concept.  At this critical point in time, it remains to be seen whether Beijing’s continued encroachment on press freedom and the right to free speech and assembly will strengthen Hong Kongers’ resolve to safeguard their freedom of speech, assembly and access to unfiltered information.  After all, they deserve the right to have a say over their own future, and that includes the freedom to protest.

In a Jan. 30, 2018 opinion piece, Martin Lee, a long-time practitioner of law and founding chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, wrote, “Every day I see the difference between Hong Kong’s ‘rule of law’ and China’s ‘rule of law.’  The Chinese Communist Party is always above the law, which is twisted so as to imprison journalists, activists and lawyers – even Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died last July in state custody … the authoritarian government on the mainland is leaning on Hong Kong to change the meaning of our laws, including their guarantees of freedom of the press, speech, assembly and religion ...”

Hong Kong’s young pro-democracy fighters are not necessarily challenging Beijing.  They are fighting to have their democratic freedoms upheld, a basic tenet of the 1997 handover of the former British colony back to Chinese rule.


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