Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 1 July 2023


Opinion Hong Kong’s downfall is a warning to the world

Demonstrators at a rally in Hong Kong in October 2019. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)
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The July 1 anniversary of Hong Kong’s 1997 handover to China from British rule used to be a day of celebration in the city. Now, it has morphed into a morbid reminder of Hong Kong’s tragic decline under the ever-worsening repression brought on by Beijing.

One might think that Chinese authorities, having quashed the pro-democracy protests that erupted in 2019, would ease up. After all, they’ve shuttered all free medianeutered judicial independencedestroyed civil society and suppressed all political opposition. But since last year, the Chinese government has ramped up its effort to snuff out Hong Kong’s autonomy and Hong Kongers’ rights, even while exporting its authoritarianism around the world.

Many have written off Hong Kong. But paying continued attention is crucial because it tells us something important about the character of Xi Jinping’s government. For the Chinese Communist Party today, too much repression is never enough. China is becoming more emboldened. That spells danger for Taiwan and the rest of the world — unless the lessons of Hong Kong are learned.

“In the early 1990s, the West was swept up in the euphoria of the post-Cold War era. We fundamentally failed to internalize the lessons of the Tiananmen Square massacre and what it told us about the brutality of the Chinese Communist Party,” said Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Select Committee on the CCP. “We must not repeat that mistake for Hong Kong.”

It’s no coincidence that Hong Kong authorities have gone out of their way to shut down any reference to the 1989 massacre of student protesters in Tiananmen Square. Many Hong Kongers were jailed and charged with “inciting a riot” for simply lighting candles in June 4 vigils commemorating the Tiananmen victims. One of those imprisoned was Jimmy Lai, the former head of the largest independent Hong Kong media outlet, Apple Daily.

Lai, 75 years old, already finished serving 14-months in prison for daring to recognize a moment of history that’s embarrassing for the CCP. He is now serving an additional five years and nine months on trumped-up fraud charges. He could go on trial again as early as this September under Hong Kong’s pernicious “national security law,” which the authorities apply liberally to hand down harsh prison sentences to any opponents of the crackdown.

Lai is one of many journalists charged with crimes such as “sedition” just for telling the truth about what’s going on in Hong Kong — and reporters aren’t the only ones. According to the Hong Kong Democracy Council, the authorities have jailed more than 1,500 political prisoners since 2019, half of whom are under the age of 25.

The CCP’s efforts to shut down any inkling of criticism have reached a high level of paranoia. For example, Hong Kong authorities are shutting down a child’s clothing retailer called Chickeeduck, which they accused of “advocating violence” because the stores displayed pro-democracy artwork and protest messages.

The Chinese government is also going after anyone overseas who dares to criticize its Hong Kong policies. In June, Hong Kong’s former chief executive publicly demanded that the British police “investigate” an event to publicize “Sheep Village,” a collection of children’s books about the democracy movement written by activists. The host, regretfully, canceled the event.

Beijing is also trying to snuff out musical criticism of its Hong Kong policy in Western countries. This past month, Spotify and other streaming services removed the protest song “Glory to Hong Kong” from its libraries worldwide before restoring it after widespread public backlash.

“Hong Kong doesn’t matter just for itself,” Mark Clifford, president of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, told me. “China is really trying to draw red lines and parameters for what we in free societies can do and discuss.”

On Thursday, 31 U.S. senators wrote an open letter pledging that the United States and other countries will “hold the CCP and the Hong Kong government accountable for their destruction of Hong Kong’s freedom, autonomy, and rule of law.” It’s past time for the U.S. government and Congress to back up those words with actions.

Congress should pass legislation to increase visas for Hong Kongers fleeing the crackdown. Congress should also pass pending bipartisan legislation recognizing that Hong Kong’s trade offices in the United States no longer represent a place where U.S. businesses are safe.

The Biden administration should announce that Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee is not invited to the November meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Council in San Francisco, because the United States has sanctioned him for human rights abuses in Hong Kong. The U.S. government also must do more to protect Hong Kongers from the long arm of China’s transnational repression when they are on American soil.

The most important lesson the world must learn from the tragedy in Hong Kong relates to Taiwan. Hong Kong proves that Beijing’s proposal of “one country, two systems” is a delusion — and that any promises Xi makes regarding Taiwan’s continued autonomy under reunification are worthless.

Xi’s China is a totalitarian regime that seeks nothing less than total control of China and everything it sees as part of China, including Hong Kong and Taiwan. That pattern is undeniable and we ignore it at our own peril.

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