Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 20 June 2021


The Observer view on China’s human rights abuses in Hong Kong | Observer editorial

Western leaders must stand up against Beijing’s assault on democractic freedoms and demand the release of imprisoned journalists
A pro-democracy protester is taken to hospital after falling sick outside a court in Hong Kong
A pro-democracy protester is taken to hospital after falling sick outside a court in Hong Kong. Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP
Sun 20 Jun 2021 06.30 BST

China did not wait long to demonstrate its contempt for last weekend’s criticism by G7 countries of human rights abuses in Hong Kong. By ordering the arrest of the editor-in-chief and four senior executives of the Apple Daily newspaper for allegedly conspiring with “foreign forces”, Xi Jinping and the Communist party sent a crude message of defiance to the west.

That China’s president and his Beijing apparatchiks were responsible for this provocatively timed injustice is not in serious doubt. Hong Kong’s 2019-20 pro-democracy protests, which Apple Daily supported, shook the CCP’s power monopoly and amour propre in ways not seen since Tiananmen Square. It has been punishing the ex-British colony ever since.

China’s assumption of direct control over Hong Kong affairs, contravening binding undertakings made at the 1997 handover, is increasingly blatant. The CCP’s imposition of a made-in-Beijing security law last year and the exclusion from the legislative assembly of “unpatriotic” opposition members has fatally eroded Hong Kong’s legally guaranteed autonomy.

The assault on press freedom and free speech form part of this wider crackdown on democratic freedoms that are routinely denied to people in mainland ChinaApple Daily’s true offence is to have opposed Beijing’s illegitimate takeover through the exercise of principled, informed, critical journalism. Xi and his censorious commissars just can’t bear it.

The fact that citizens rallied to support the newspaper last week, buying copies in huge numbers, is a cheering sign that Beijing’s bullying has not crushed Hong Kong’s independent spirit. The brave stand taken by Jimmy Lai, Apple Daily’s owner, who is already in jail on trumped up charges, and editor-in-chief Ryan Law, deserves deep respect.

The shameful antics of their persecutors provide, in contrast, an insight into the insecure mindset of party apparatchiks who live in ultimate fear of Xi’s wrath. Hong Kong security chief John Lee claimed those arrested had used their journalism “as a tool to endanger national security”. How fragile and feeble is the Chinese state that mere words cause it to tremble so.

Those arrested last week must be released immediately and all charges dropped. The same applies to more than 100 individuals, including politicians and activists, held under the security law since last year. If they have any ethical scruples at all, journalists working in Chinese state media should back their colleagues at Apple Daily.

That China has again dishonoured itself by shirking its responsibility to abide by the Sino-British joint declaration, uphold international law, and support universal values as defined by the UN, is sadly no surprise, given its conduct since Xi took power. Its serial misdeeds speak to a sense of impunity that is now having a wider, negative influence around the world.

In neighbouring Myanmar, for example, the murderous behaviour of the military junta that seized power in February reflects a similar belief that the international community can be ignored, and that hard-won global civil and human rights may be overturned at will. These cowardly generals continue to be sustained by the support of Beijing.

Stirred into action by the sheer egregiousness of the Myanmar crisis, the usually divided UN General Assembly voted on Friday for an arms embargo. No fewer than 119 countries called on the junta to release political detainees, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and respect the result of last year’s election. Guess what? China abstained.

Chinese disdain for international norms is now habitual, ranging from abuses in Xinjiang to its refusal to help establish Covid-19’s exact origin. The failure to apologise for last month’s random, chaotic descent to Earth of debris from a Chinese rocket, which could have proven disastrous for many below, aptly symbolises the arrogant, insouciant exceptionalism of the Xi era.

Western leaders last week demanded China start respecting “fundamental freedoms” in Hong Kong and elsewhere. Tougher, concrete action to achieve that aim is going to be needed.

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