In recent days, the prime ministers of the UK and Australia each declared they are working toward providing safe haven visas for Hong Kong residents. In the US, lawmakers passed a bill that would impose sanctions on businesses and individuals that support China’s efforts to restrict Hong Kong’s autonomy.
The prospect of a shift from rhetoric to action reveals just how dire the situation in China’s world city has become.
July 1 is usually associated with Hong Kong’s annual pro-democracy march. This year, it saw around 370 arrests as protesters clashed with police under the shadow of a brand new national security law.
Hong Kong police have been cracking down hard on demonstrators for over a year – with Beijing’s blessing – and most of this week’s arrests were possible simply because police had banned the gathering.
But ten arrests were made under the national security law for conduct including the possession of banners advocating Hong Kong independence.
The national security law had been unveiled just hours earlier, its details kept secret until this week. It was imposed on Hong Kong in unprecedented circumstances when Chief Executive Carrie Lam, Beijing’s appointed leader in the city, bypassed the local legislature and promulgated it directly.
The law creates four main offences: secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces to endanger national security.
Hong Kong law already contains some offences of this sort, including treason, a disused colonial relic, and terrorism, tightly defined by statute. The new national security offences are different beasts – procedurally unique and alarmingly broad.
Secession, for example, includes the acts of inciting, assisting, supporting, planning, organising or participating in the separation or change of status of any part of China, not necessarily by force. This is calculated to prevent even the discussion of independence or self-determination for Hong Kong.
Collusion includes making requests of or receiving instructions from foreign countries, institutions or organisations to disrupt laws or policies in or impose sanctions against Hong Kong or China.
This is aimed at barring Hong Kongers from lobbying foreign governments or making representations at the United Nations, which many protesters have done in the past year.
The law contains severe penalties: for serious cases, between ten years and life imprisonment. It also overrides other Hong Kong laws. The presumption in favour of bail, for instance, will not apply in national security cases, facilitating indefinite detention of accused persons.
Defendants can be tried in Hong Kong courts, but in a major departure from the city’s long-cherished judicial independence, the chief executive will personally appoint the judges for national security cases.
The chief executive also decides if a trial involves state secrets – a concept defined very broadly in China. In these cases, open justice is abandoned and trials will take place behind closed doors with no jury.
While Hong Kong courts can apply the new national security law, the power to interpret it lies with Beijing alone. And in the most serious cases, mainland Chinese courts can assume jurisdiction.
This raises the prospect of political prisoners being swallowed up by China’s legal system, which features no presumption of innocence and nominal human rights guarantees. China also leads the world in executions.
Much of the national security law’s content contradicts fundamental principles of Hong Kong’s common law legal system and the terms of its mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
Even the territory’s justice minister – another unelected political appointee – has admitted the systems are incompatible.
In the typical style of mainland Chinese laws, the national security law is drafted in vague and general terms. This is designed to give maximum flexibility to law enforcement and prosecutors, while provoking maximum fear and compliance among the population.
A Beijing spokesman has said the charge of collusion to “provoke hatred” against the Hong Kong government could be used against people who spread rumours that police beat protesters to death in a notorious subway station clash last year, echoing the infamous mainland Chinese law against “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.
The law does not appear to be retroactive, but fears that it could be interpreted that way have caused a flurry of online activity as people have deleted social media accounts and posts associating them with past protests.
This is unsurprising given the Hong Kong government’s record of trawling through old social media posts for reasons to bar non-establishment candidates from standing at elections.
Despite the promise of autonomy for Hong Kong, enshrined in a pre-handover treaty with the UK that China claims is now irrelevant, the national security law has escalated the project to “harmonise” the upstart region by coercive means, rather than addressing the root causes of dissatisfaction.
Under the auspices of the new law, the Chinese government will openly establish a security agency, with agents unaccountable under local law, in Hong Kong for the first time. It has also authorised itself in the new law to extend its tendrils further into civil society, with mandates to manage the media, the internet, NGOs and school curricula.
Under the weight of this authoritarian agenda, dissent in any form becomes an extremely hazardous prospect. It is no doubt Beijing’s intention that it will one day be impossible – or better yet, something Hong Kongers would not even contemplate.
The aim of silencing all opposing voices – including those overseas – is clear from the purported extraterritorial operation of the law.
The international community has condemned Beijing’s actions, but its members have a responsibility to follow words with actions. The least that democratic countries like the US, UK, Australia and others can do is offer a realistic path to safety for the civic-minded Hong Kongers who have stood up to the world’s premier authoritarian power at grave personal risk.
Some 23 years after China achieved its long-held ambition of regaining Hong Kong, it has failed to win hearts and minds and has brought out the big stick. Its promises may have been hollow, but its threats are not.
Over the weekend, Prime Minister Scott Morrison launched a new assault on the campaigning group GetUp. At the Liberal Party’s state conference in Adelaide, he said GetUp needed to be “accountable for what they say and do”.
They want to be in the political space, fine, call yourself a political party.
GetUp has been in the government’s firing line for several years now. This isn’t surprising. The campaigning group is typically described as a “left wing” and “progressive” organisation, and the stances it takes on various issues tend to be at odds with those of the Liberal and National parties.
GetUp campaigns on these issues by mobilising its membership in a number of ways. It encourages them to make donations to fund advertisements and other campaign initiatives, to directly contact their political representatives, and to operate on the ground in electorates in the run-up to elections.
It is perhaps this last activity that most bothers the Coalition government, as GetUp targeted a number of sitting Liberal MPs at the last election, including Peter Dutton and Tony Abbott. The group didn’t have a tremendous amount of success, though, with only Abbott losing his seat.
Australia’s electoral process is not the private fiefdom of political parties. There are a variety of actors permitted to participate in our democracy and become involved in election campaigns. These include lobby groups, charities and not-for-profit campaigning groups, such as GetUp and its new “conservative” counterpart, Advance Australia.
And there is already a regulatory framework in place to ensure there is accountability and transparency around their electoral activities.
Any organisation that spends more than the “disclosure threshold” (currently A$14,000 per year) on “electoral expenditure”, for example, needs to submit an annual return to the Australian Electoral Commission. Information about these so-called “third parties” is publicly available on the AEC’s transparency register.
Groups like GetUp are now subject to even more regulation than third parties, thanks to legislative changes introduced by the government last year. Because of the amount they spend trying to influence elections, they fit into a new category called “political campaigner”. Political campaigners are required to register with the AEC and submit a more detailed annual return than “third parties”, similar to the returns required of political parties.
So, when Morrison calls for GetUp to be accountable like a political party, that’s already the case. However, despite being regulated in a similar way to political parties, they don’t receive the same benefits.
Organisations like GetUp don’t field candidates in elections, for instance, so they can never hope to wield political power in the way that political parties do.
Political parties also benefit from taxpayer funding – the AEC reimburses them for some or all of the expenses they incur in an election, provided they reached a certain threshold of votes. GetUp doesn’t get a cent from the AEC.
Donations to political parties of up to A$1,500 per year from individuals are also tax deductible. This also doesn’t apply to GetUp’s donors.
Morrison wants to have GetUp classified by the AEC as related to the Labor Party or the Greens, what the electoral law refers to as an “associated entity”. These organisations have some sort of formal link with a political party, or they
operate wholly or to a significant extent for the benefit of one or more registered political parties.
Having GetUp classified as an “associated entity” wouldn’t actually bring any extra regulation. As a “political campaigner”, GetUp is already subject to the same type of regulation as an “associated entity”.
But this is likely not the point. For the Coalition, labelling GetUp an “associated entity” would make it much more difficult for the group to maintain its much-vaunted status as
an independent movement of everyday people
This may influence how GetUp’s future campaigns are perceived by voters – and would certainly be something the government would talk up at every opportunity.
The AEC has looked into this question three times – in 2005, 2010, and earlier this year. It has consistently found that GetUp is not an “associated entity” because it does not operate wholly or to a significant extent for the benefit of one or more registered political parties.
While it’s true that the positions of GetUp often align with those of the Labor Party or the Greens, the AEC concluded the organisation is primarily an issues based campaigning organisation and that:
the expression of views or other conduct by an entity that broadly or closely aligns with the policy of a registered political party do not support a finding that the entity is operating wholly or to a significant extent for the benefit of one or more registered political parties
If the government once again refers this matter to the AEC, it would be surprising if the AEC didn’t come back with exactly the same finding – especially given it’s only been a few months since the AEC last examined the matter.
There are other ways the Coalition government can try to reduce the influence of organisations like GetUp. For instance, the Liberal National Party State Convention in Queensland recently voted in support of banning GetUp and other campaigning organisations from handing out how to vote cards and other political material at polling booths on election day.
Such a drastic move to limit participation in our electoral process is at odds with Australia’s reputation as a free and vibrant democracy. As one Queensland Liberal National politician wisely warned, it could also cut both ways and harm conservative groups seeking to campaign on particular issues.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with GetUp’s positions, these types of campaigning groups reflect the diversity and vibrancy of our democracy and the different ways people can get involved in our political process.
If our political leaders are serious about improving the transparency and accountability of all actors in our political system, then instead of singling out GetUp, Morrison should prioritise the introduction of “real time” disclosure of political donations and the lowering of the disclosure threshold for public reporting of donations.
Online petitions are often seen as a form of “slacktivism” – small acts that don’t require much commitment and are more about helping us feel good than effective activism. But the impacts of online petitions can stretch beyond immediate results.
Whether they work to create legislative change, or just raise awareness of an issue, there’s some merit to signing them. Even if nothing happens immediately, petitions are one of many ways we can help build long-term change.
Petitions have a long history in Western politics. They developed centuries ago as a way for people to have their voices heard in government or ask for legislative change. But they’ve also been seen as largely ineffective in this respect. One study found only three out of 2,589 petitions submitted to the Australian House of Representatives between 1999 and 2007 even received a ministerial response.
Before the end of the second world war, fewer than 16 petitions a year were presented to Australia’s House of Representatives. The new political landscape of the early 1970s saw that number leap into the thousands.
In the 2000s, the House received around 300 petitions per year, and even with online tools, it’s still nowhere near what it was in the 70s. According to the parliamentary website, an average of 121 petitions have been presented each year since 2008.
Although petitions rarely achieve direct change, they are an important part of the democratic process. Many governments have attempted to facilitate petitioning online. For example, the Australian parliamentary website helps citizens through the process of developing and submitting petitions. This is one way the internet has made creating and submitting petitions easier.
As well as petitions being a way for citizens to make requests of their governments, they are now used more broadly. Many petitions reach a global audience – they might call for change from companies, international institutions, or even society as a whole.
The simplest way to gauge if a petition has been successful is to look at whether the requests made were granted. The front page of Change.org displays recent “victories”. These including a call to axe the so-called “tampon tax” (the GST on menstrual products) which states and territories agreed to remove come January 2019.
Change.org also boasts the petition for gender equality on cereal boxes as a victory, after Kelloggs sent a statement they would be updating their packaging in 2019 to include images of males and females. This petition only had 600 signatures, in comparison to the 75,000 against the tampon tax.
In 2012, a coalition of organisations mobilised a campaign against two proposed US laws that many saw as likely to restrict internet freedom. A circulating petition gathered 4.5 million signatures, which helped put pressure on US representatives not to vote for the bills.
However, all of these petitions were part of larger efforts. There have been campaigns to remove the tax on menstrual products since it was first imposed, there’s a broad movement for more equal gender representation, and there’s significant global activism against online censorship. None of these petitions can claim sole victory. But they may have pushed it over the line, or just added some weight to the groundswell of existing support.
Online petitions can have the obvious impact of changing the very thing they’re campaigning for. However, the type of petition also makes a difference to what change it can achieve.
Knowing a few characteristics of successful petitions can be useful when you’re deciding whether it’s worth your time to sign and share something. Firstly, there should be a target and specific call for action.
These can take many forms: petitions might request a politician vote “yes” on a specific law, demand changes to working conditions at a company, or even ask an advocacy organisation to begin campaigning around a new issue. Vague targets and unclear goals aren’t well suited to petitions. Calls for “more gender equality in society” or “better rights for pets”, for example, are unlikely to achieve success.
Secondly, the goal needs to be realistic. This is so it’s possible to succeed and so supporters feel a sense of optimism. Petitioning for a significant change in a foreign government’s policy – for example, a call from world citizens for better gun control in the US – is unlikely to lead to results.
It’s easier to get politicians to change their vote on a single, relatively minor issue than to achieve sweeping legal changes. It’s also more likely a company will change its packaging than completely overhaul its approach to production.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, a petition’s chance of success depends largely on the strength of community supporting it. Petitions rarely work on their own. In her book Twitter and Teargas, Turkish writer Zeynep Tufekci argues the internet allows us to organise action far more quickly than in the past, outpacing the hard but essential work of community organising.
We can get thousands of people signing a petition and shouting in the streets well before we build coalitions and think about long-term strategies. But the most effective petitions will work in combination with other forms of activism.
Even petitions that don’t achieve their stated aims or minor goals can play a role in activist efforts. Sharing petitions is one way to bring attention to issues that might otherwise remain off the agenda.
Most online petitions include the option of allowing further updates and contact. Organisations often use a petition to build momentum around an ongoing campaign. Creating, or even signing, online petitions can be a form of micro-activism that helps people start thinking of themselves as capable of creating change.
Signing petitions – and seeing that others have also done so – can help us feel we are part of a collective, working with others to shape our world.
It’s reasonable to think carefully about what we put our names to online, but we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss online petitions as ineffective, or “slack”. Instead, we should think of them as one example of the diverse tactics that help build change over time.
The terrible tragedy in Haiti continues to dominate world news, with fears that the death toll from the earthquake will top 200 000 deaths. 250 000 people were also injured in the earthquake and there is now a major effort to provide essential aid including food and medical provisions for the suffering Haitian population. This is a major tragedy and the world needs to respond to it – thankfully, this is happening.
The crisis will continue long after the headlines have ended, with some 2 million people having been rendered homeless as a consequence of the disaster. Millions of Haitians are at risk of illness and death as a consequence of the quake, with sanitary conditions, lack of drinking water, limited shelter, etc. These are just some of the problems that will continue to plague the poverty-stricken people of Haiti. The rebuilding process will be enormous and well out of reach of Haiti. The nation of Haiti will continue to need the assistance of the world for many years to come.
Organisations like World Vision, the Red Cross and many others, will need the continued support of governments and individuals around the world in order to continue to support and assist the victims of this earthquake. Please continue to assist by sending donations to the various aid organisations that are assisting in the work in Haiti. Over the coming days and weeks, ‘Random Thoughts’ will pass on information as to how people can continue to assist the Haitian people.
I have provided a review of the book ‘365 Ways to Change the World,’ by Michael Norton, on my book Blog ‘At the BookShelf’ at:
See the book review at:
Perhaps, at the start of a New Year, it is not a bad time to have a look at this book and begin to do something for the world in which we live – something that will make a difference.
There is a website for the book which provides a great place to start and also provides a way to purchase the book:
Many people, myself included, often wonder just what they can do to effect change in something that disturbs them, angers them, in something they strongly disagree with, etc. It could by a human rights issue, a health problem that plagues poor people, homelessness, a green issue, etc. The thing that galvanises a lot of people is their sense of inability to effect change and/or how to go about effecting the change they desire.
We might see a news report on the nightly news about a devastating famine or destructive tsunami and think that the problem is just too big and there is little we can actually do to help. At other times we might think, ‘if only there was some way we could help here,’ but we don’t because we don’t know how. Just maybe if there was some place we could turn that could give us some direction?
Thankfully there are places to turn and one of these places is change.org – the link follows at the end of this post. This site seeks to inform about issues and also to empower normal people to be able to do something about whatever that issue might be. The site covers a plethora of issues that people and groups are seeking to tackle all around the world and is a great place to visit on a regular basis. there is a blog to keep you up to date on what is happening.
Not only does the site inform, it also empowers. It is a portal to a massive range of issues and action groups seeking to change the world for the better, generally speaking. We may not agree with the mission statements for every single action group that we come across at change.org, but there are so many represented there that the chances are good that you will soon find one or more that you can actively support.
There are plenty of opportunities to get involved in should you wish. You can also donate to the causes that you wish to support via the site.