Throughout Hong Kong, there is a sentiment that civil liberties and the city’s autonomy are under attack by Beijing. The embodiment of that fear came in the form of Zhang Dejiang, who visited Hong Kong on Wednesday.
As chairman of China’s National People’s Congress, Zhang oversaw a decision to establish strict policies regarding the screening of candidates for Hong Kong’s top post. That move led to major protests that caught the eyes of the world in 2014. Since then, many pro-Democracy protests have turned violent.
This week, thousands of police officers descended around a hotel and convention center where Zhang was set to speak. Demonstrators were secluded to designated areas blocks away from the scene.
“He must feel fearful and guilty, so he needs such high security and fears any contact with the people,” said Raphael Wong, vice chairman of the League of Social Democrats, in an interview with The New York Times. “He simply couldn’t tolerate any dissent against the Communist Party.”
However, dissent against the Communist Party is spreading throughout Hong Kong and about 445 miles away into Taiwan.
This Friday, the island is set to inaugurate its first female president Tsai Ing-wen. She rose to power largely due to support from a young and disgruntled electorate, which also feared their government was falling deeper into Beijing’s control.
Under the previous leader Ma Ying-jeou, cross-strait economic relations blossomed. Analysts believed Tsai won’t be as open to economic ties with Beijing as her predecessor.
In 2014, protestors tried blocking the passage of a cross-strait trade agreement by occupying Taiwan’s legislature for 23 days. Many of them marched on to Hong Kong where they called for a democratic government in July 2014.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, explained the relation to the Times.
“I think it is a clash between two political cultures: authoritarian in China and liberal in Hong Kong and Taiwan,” he said. “Hong Kong is very much on the bridge, resisting the authoritarian political culture in China.”
For many in Hong Kong, that authoritarian culture was undeniable in 2015, when a group of Hong Kong book sellers went missing. They later appeared on China’s state-run television, where they confessed to engaging in a conspiracy to smuggle banned books into China. The captives worked for a book store that sold several titles critical of the Communist Party.
Activists suspected they were kidnapped and coerced into confessing.
One of them, Lee Bo, was picked off the streets of Hong Kong in what many saw as a disgraceful violation of the “One Country, Two Systems” policy that guarantees Hong Kong independence until 2047.
Emily Lau, head of the Democratic Party in Hon Kong’s legislature, told the Times that the situation proved “Hong Kong is going through very dark times.”
Lau and other democratic leaders expressed their concerns during a reception with Zhang on Wednesday. She argued that allowing elections in Hong Kong to be truly open, instead of being contests between a few Beijing-backed candidates, would improve relations and even calm the sentiment for independence.
“I feel like Hong Kong is like Taiwan more than 20 years ago, before we had free elections,” said Sung Chung-hsing, a Taiwanese lawyer, in an interview with the Times. “The young people in Hong Kong have realized the importance of freedom and elections. I hope they can raise their voices and let the mainland government know their feelings.”