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While the world is distracted by coronavirus, China is clamping down on Hong Kong's pro-democracy campaigners

This article is co-authored by Colombe Cahen-Salvador and Andrea Venzon and was originally published in the Independent, on April 29, 2020. Click here to read the original piece. 

“I call upon the world to keep an eye on Beijing’s oppression. We can all step up for Hong Kong right now,” said Joshua Wong this week, in front of a digital crowd of activists from across the globe.

In a highly emotional address, his words came at a pivotal time in Hong Kong’s struggle after dozens of pro-democracy activists and opposition politicians were arrested for protests organised and carried out during 2019. Among them was Martin Lee, dubbed the Father of Democracy in Hong Kong.

Such a clampdown would have been utterly unthinkable just a few weeks ago, when such an attempt would have been faced by riots across the city state. Yet in the midst of a pandemic and with little international attention focused on crackdowns on democracy and freedom, Beijing moved swiftly, knowing that its act of force would have lied unmet. Covid-19 has paralysed protesters.

In this situation, campaigners fear the cancellation of the legislative elections due in autumn, or even more nightmarish prospects, such as a move of the legislative council of Hong Kong to mainland China, which would, according to Wong, “result in a tremendous erosion of the universal values of Hong Kong”.

Hong Kong is not an exception. Across the world, governments are using Covid-19 as an opportunity to crack down on rights, democracy, and freedom. In Hungary, for example, the parliament handed unlimited powers to prime minister Viktor Orbán, enabling him to rule by decree indefinitely. From intrusive surveillance methods to overstretched police powers, some of the oldest and most established democracies are now considering measures that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago.

The battles of 2019 for democracy and freedom across the world seem to be long forgotten. When seeing photos of army trucks removing bodies from hospitals in Italy, mass graves dug in the US, and billions of people quarantined, it became clear that coronavirus had shifted international attention away from crackdowns on rights and democracy.

However, there are consequences to this mass distraction. If public opinion does not hold those who govern under scrutiny, our freedoms might disappear quicker than we think – even in established democracies. At the same time, authoritarians might use this opportunity to continue their grab on power.

For months in 2019, Hong Kong protests gathered international attention and admiration; Wong’s face was on the cover of magazines and newspapers across the world, and hashtags of support flooded social media. That’s also because his personal story is quite remarkable: from high school activism to being imprisoned for his beliefs, he embodied the Hong Kong struggle and gave people hope. So even when Edward Leung, one of the localist leaders in Hong Kong, was sentenced to six years imprisonment he kept on hoping that after the storm, the sun would rise again. “I am optimistic that Hong Kong will one day enjoy freedom and democracy, and a government elected by people,” he said.

In September 2019, Western powers started to listen, and sometimes even act. The US Congress passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, imposing sanctions and linking the former British colony’s special trade status to its continued autonomy from Beijing, among other measures. Hong Kong protestors brought the fight to the global stage, and the international community played ball.

But though the spotlight has shifted away from the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and the people singing for universal suffrage during the pandemic, the fact remains that international support and lobbying for the cause was inadequate even before the outbreak of coronavirus. Trade has bound countries to Beijing’s will with a double knot; many are unable to show any disagreement beyond weak letters of condemnation. Even the UK, the guarantor of Hong Kong’s freedoms, has failed to take any meaningful action. Intergovernmental organisations mirrored nation states’ inability to do anything more than call for investigation, and communicate their uneasiness through letters calling for restraint.

In today’s interconnected world, one people’s struggle quickly becomes a global issue. Hong Kong’s tireless pursuit of democracy represents the fight for a fairer and freer world. Hong Kongers need the support of the international community, from countries and intergovernmental organisations, as well as from grassroots mobilizations. While citizens from all over the world showed their support online, too little pressure has been applied on governments. It is time for people of the world to pressure their governments to stand firm and safeguard Hong Kong’s future, by passing laws all over the world comparable to the US Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. And the clock is ticking.

“I hope that Hong Kong can be one of the remarkable cases to inspire people around the world to be the change we want to see,” said Joshua, in the aftermath of the latest arrests of those refusing to stand down to Beijing’s iron fist.

So let’s turn inspiration into action. As the hymn of Hong Kong protesters goes: “Is there a world you long to see? Then join in the fight that will give you the right to be free.”

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