Hong Kong activist's visit to Berlin draws anger from China

Beijing criticises German foreign minister over meeting with Joshua Wong

The Chinese government has expressed its anger with Germany’s foreign minister over his meeting with the Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong, saying the encounter was “disrespectful” of Beijing’s sovereignty.

Wong tweeted a picture of himself and Heiko Maas following his arrival in Berlin, saying the two had discussed the “protest situation and our cause”.

The 22-year-old, arrested in August for his role in the protests which have challenged Beijing, was feted by German politicians and media commentators at a party in the rooftop restaurant of the Reichstag building on Monday night hosted by the Bild tabloid.

In Berlin I spoke to Foreign Minister @HeikoMaas on protests situation and our cause to free election and democracy in HK. Anticipating further discussion with members of German Bundestag in coming days. pic.twitter.com/y8VCUZrE6s

— Joshua Wong 黃之鋒 (@joshuawongcf) September 10, 2019

Speaking to the gathering, Wong pledged to continue to “protest until the day that we have free elections” and compared Hong Kong with communist East Germany during the pro-democracy protests that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“If we are now in a new cold war, Hong Kong is the new Berlin,” Wong told the gathering. “We urge the free world to stand together with us in resisting the autocratic Chinese regime.”

Why are people protesting?

The protests were triggered by a controversial bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where the Communist party controls the courts, but have since evolved into a broader pro-democracy movement.

Public anger – fuelled by the aggressive tactics used by the police against demonstrators – has collided with years of frustration over worsening inequality and the cost of living in one of the world's most expensive, densely populated cities.

The protest movement was given fresh impetus on 21 July when gangs of men attacked protesters and commuters at a mass transit station – while authorities seemingly did little to intervene. 

Underlying the movement is a push for full democracy in the city, whose leader is chosen by a committee dominated by a pro-Beijing establishment rather than by direct elections.

Protesters have vowed to keep their movement going until their core demands are met, such as the resignation of the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, an independent inquiry into police tactics, an amnesty for those arrested and a permanent withdrawal of the bill.

Lam announced on 4 September that she was withdrawing the bill.

Why were people so angry about the extradition bill?

Beijing’s influence over Hong Kong has grown in recent years, as activists have been jailed and pro-democracy lawmakers disqualified from running or holding office. Independent booksellers have disappeared from the city, before reappearing in mainland China facing charges.

Under the terms of the agreement by which the former British colony was returned to Chinese control in 1997, the semi-autonomous region was meant to maintain a “high degree of autonomy” through an independent judiciary, a free press and an open market economy, a framework known as “one country, two systems”.

The extradition bill was seen as an attempt to undermine this and to give Beijing the ability to try pro-democracy activists under the judicial system of the mainland.

How have the authorities responded?

Beijing has issued increasingly shrill condemnations but has left it to the city's semi-autonomous government to deal with the situation. Meanwhile police have violently clashed directly with protesters, repeatedly firing teargas and rubber bullets.

Beijing has ramped up its accusations that foreign countries are “fanning the fire” of unrest in the city. China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi has ordered the US to “immediately stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs in any form”.

Lily Kuo and Guardian reporter in Hong Kong

He had been briefly detained in Hong Kong by authorities immediately before his departure to Germany, apparently following a mistake related to his bail conditions.

The former student leader of pro-democracy protests in 2014 was one of several activists arrested in late August. The case was adjourned until November and he was released on HK$10,000 (£1,045) bail.

Wong told the Berlin gathering he had been arrested eight times and held in detention for 100 days.

In a statement a spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry accused Berlin of interfering in the country’s affairs.

“It is extremely wrong for German media and politicians to attempt to tap into the anti-China separatist wave,” Hua Chunying said at a press briefing on Tuesday, adding that the government “strongly disapproved” of the meeting. “It is disrespectful towards China’s sovereignty and an interference in China’s internal affairs.”

Germany’s foreign ministry rejected the criticism. A spokesman said it was normal for the foreign minister to “hold meetings with members of civil society and for the government to stand up for freedom of speech”.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who visited Beijing last week with an entourage of business leaders, said she had discussed the protests during her meetings with officials. She reportedly stressed to China’s premier, Li Keqiang, on Friday that the rights and freedoms of people in Hong Kong “must be guaranteed”.

Wong, who is due to address students and the public on Wednesday evening at the Humboldt University in Berlin before travelling to the US, said he planned to hold further talks with political leaders in Germany. There was no meeting scheduled with Merkel, according to her spokesman, Steffen Seibert.

Last week, Wong made headlines in Germany after calling for two panda cubs, born last month to pandas at Berlin zoo who have been rented from the Chinese government, to be named “Democracy” and “Freedom”, in order to “send a very clear signal to China”. A national campaign has called for the cubs to be called “Hong” and “Kong”.


Kate Connolly in Berlin

The GuardianTramp

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