Hong Kong Fights for More Than Rule of Law

Last week, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam announced that her government will withdraw the bill that would undermine the rule of law by allowing extraditions to mainland China, which sparked three months of protests in the city. However, demonstrations are unlikely to end anytime soon. Tanja Por?nik is concerned about the continued erosion of personal and economical freedom in the area.

The protests have now gained momentum with people that took to the street are standing firm behind their other demands. Most notably, they demand assurance of universal suffrage by which people of Hong Kong would be able to elect a leader of their choosing. While Beijing has ruled out this demand, for Hongkongers this change is seen as a prevention of encroachment on their freedoms. With recent developments in Hong Kong, many would argue the violations are already taking place, for which they perceive the institutional change of 2047, a year when Hong Kong is expected to fully become a part of China, to be transpiring already.

Calls for more democratic political institutions do not surprise as Hong Kong is far from being a full democracy. On the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2018 Democracy Index Hong Kong can be found at 73rd rank among 167 countries and territories. As a comparison, China ranks 130th and is classified as an “authoritarian regime.” Protests in Hong Kong clearly and powerfully display that citizens of Hong Kong do not aspire to live in an autocracy. Instead, they look up to Norway, Iceland, and Sweden, countries with the most robust democracies in the world, for acquiring even more political rights than they already have.

As the protests in Hong Kong are not winding down, it has become palpable that the city’s most contentious political crisis since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule more than two decades ago is not only about people’s demand for strong rule of law and more democratic political institutions rather also making sure that freedoms of Hong Kong people are protected. On mainland China, the legal system is used to silence people who do not support the state. In Hong Kong, people are taking to the streets to protest government’s attempts to undermine rule of law as well as attack their freedoms.

In the Human Freedom Index (HFI) 2018, my coauthor Ian Vásquez and I document a steady and persistent erosion of personal freedom in Hong Kong since 2008. Most notably, under attack are aspects of personal liberty associated with democracy and political freedom—freedom of the press as well as freedom of association and freedom of assembly. Since 2008, Hong Kong dropped on the personal freedom side of the HFI from 17th to 32nd place among 162 countries and territories. As a comparison, in the same period, China dropped from 129th to 141st place. 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 HFI while China looks more and more like Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, the lowest-ranked countries on personal freedom.

Finally, Hongkongers also fear erosion of their economic freedom, which has historically been not only at a noticeably higher level than on mainland China but also the highest in the world. As such, Hong Kong again tops just released Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World (EFW) index, followed by Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland, the United States, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and Mauritius (tied for 9th). For decades, Hong Kong people have enjoyed the most economic freedom in the world. The earliest measure of economic freedom for Hong Kong goes back to 1960. Already then, the EFW index reveals, people in Hong Kong enjoyed more economic freedom than those living in Canada, the United States, Switzerland, Germany, and interestingly also the United Kingdom. That said, economic freedom does not guarantee political or personal freedom, just like democratic political institutions do not guarantee economic or personal freedom.

Over the years, China has been moving from one country, two systems to one country, one system to fully integrate Hong Kong with the rest of the country. The protests in Hong Kong unequivocally object to such transition in instances when the rights and freedoms of the citizens are threatened.

Tanja Porčnik is Senior Fellow at Fraser Institute. The institutes 2019 report Economic Freedom of the World was published September 12