AFTER YEARS of a slow drip-drip, China is now rushing at high speed to end Hong Kong’s legendary freedom and independence. President Xi Jinping appears to have decided that, with a new national security law in place, Hong Kong should be rapidly swaddled in China’s authoritarian straight jacket — no more temporizing. This is the unsettling message of Monday’s arrest of democracy champion and tycoon Jimmy Lai.
The courageous Mr. Lai, 71, was taken away in the most ostentatious way possible: handcuffed by police, along with his sons and seven others, while police raided the newsroom of his pro-democracy Apple Daily, rifling through reporters’ desks and carting off 25 boxes of files, all on suspicion of “colluding with foreign powers,” punishable by life in prison under the new security law that China rammed through recently. The charge is outrageous, but the raids signal a determination to extinguish media freedom, long one of Hong Kong’s crown jewels of liberty, a principle and practice that does not exist under the party-state on the mainland. Mr. Lai, who got his start in the garment industry, championed Apple Daily as a newspaper unafraid to hold both Hong Kong and Beijing governments to account.
By using the new national security law so broadly and abruptly in a bid to silence Mr. Lai, Mr. Xi has dispelled any impression that the law would be applied sparingly. It is now the hammer and tong of China’s repression. The arrests come on top of the July 31 decision by Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam to delay legislative council elections for a year, ostensibly because of the novel coronavirus, closing off one of the few remaining forums for Hong Kong residents to express themselves. The elections were expected to bring out serious opposition to China’s tightening controls; now, China will decide the makeup of the 70-member council until and unless elections are held.
There can be no more illusions that China will keep its promise from the 1997 handover to allow “one-country, two-systems,” under which Hong Kong was assured that it could retain rule of law, free expression and the promise of full democracy. But the people of Hong Kong have shown, over and over again during the ordeal of recent years, that they cherish the values of a free people. The world must not abandon them or surrender to Beijing’s steamroller.
If President Trump had not pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, if he had devoted more attention to supporting allies in the region instead of consistently undermining them, he might have more leverage at this moment of crisis in Hong Kong. But Mr. Trump was indifferent toward China’s human rights abuses for years, and his recent burst of campaign-year criticism and sanctions are having little impact on China. The loss of Hong Kong as an island of freedom is a grievous one for all who care about democracy. Mr. Xi is going about his grim business unrestrained.