Hong Kong is the new frontline in a clash of value systems—a clash about to be lost if the free world does not act immediately, robustly and in unity. Today is the 31st anniversary of China’s crushing of the democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square, an appropriate moment to sound the alarm about what is happening to Hong Kong.
Last Thursday in Beijing, the National People’s Congress—the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s sham pretense of a parliament—approved a national security law on Hong Kong which would decimate the city’s freedoms and autonomy and break China’s commitments under an international treaty. The resolution vote was nearly unanimous, of course, and thus real democracy in Hong Kong is set to be crushed by a mockery of democracy in Beijing.
When Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997, it was on the principle of “one country, two systems,” enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a treaty lodged at the United Nations and signed by the former colonial rulers and the new ones. Hongkongers had no say in the deal—but they kept faith with the promise of a “high degree of autonomy” and “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong.”
For the first decade or so of Chinese rule the experiment largely worked and Hong Kong continued to be one of Asia’s freest, most open cities—in stark contrast to every other city in China. For 23 years it has been the only city in China to be able to commemorate the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre of June 4, 1989, for example. Today is the first time that vigil has been banned—although thousands of Hongkongers defied the ban to honor the victims and their cause.
In recent weeks we have seen a precursor of what is in store for Hong Kong, with the arrest of fifteen of the city’s most distinguished pro-democracy politicians, including the “father of the democracy movement,” Martin Lee. Under the new law, every activist, every reporter, every ordinary citizen who utters a word against Xi Jinping’s regime will be in danger, as is already the case in the rest of China.
Every non-democratic regime eventually has to choose between economic development and the power structure. Having determined that the democracy movement is too dangerous, Beijing is willing to kill the golden goose in order to bring Hong Kong’s vibrant citizenry to heel. Along with seizing its opportunity in the current crisis, Beijing also learned from the tepid global response to Vladimir Putin’s conquest of Crimea in 2014. China has far more geopolitical leverage than Russia and clearly doesn’t believe the international community has the will or ability to deter it from this latest crackdown. Now Xi Jinping will again watch and learn from the world’s reaction, with an eye on the South China Sea and, as ever, on Taiwan.
And yet what has the world done in the past week? There have been tepid words from Britain’s foreign secretary—even though Britain is a signatory to the treaty that has been brazenly flouted and has a moral obligation to defend its former colony. There have been more robust words from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but these days the Trump administration seems more interested in re-enacting Tiananmen Square in America than preventing its repeat in Hong Kong. And there has been a call for action by over 230 senior parliamentarians, former prime ministers and foreign ministers, and public figures from 25 countries, initiated by the last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, which I am proud to have signed. But there is a need for more than just words.
For too long the free world has sold out to the Chinese Communists in pursuit of filthy lucre under the guise of a failed engagement policy. Hong Kong, and the over one million Uighur Muslims incarcerated in concentration camps in western China, are the casualties not only of the Chinese regime’s brutality but of Western appeasement.
So what now?
The free world must stop kowtowing to this mendacious, brutal regime whose duplicity led to a global pandemic with untold impact. There must be a coherent international response—bipartisan and multilateral. Britain—as the country with particular responsibility—should work to bring together like-minded allies across the world to coordinate a global response.
We should think about how the free world could collaborate to offer sanctuary for vulnerable, courageous frontline Hong Kong activists who will be in grave danger if this law is imposed. On Wednesday, U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson pledged to admit 2.8 million Hongkongers if China adopts the security law. It’s an admirable if belated move, but no one country can do this by itself, particularly during the global economic catastrophe caused by the pandemic. Surely it is not beyond the ability of democratic nations to coordinate a scheme to welcome Hongkongers in need of protection.
Magnitsky-style targeted sanctions against Chinese officials complicit in violating human rights in Hong Kong—and their family members enjoying the good life abroad—would be welcome, but are unlikely to be sufficient. Consideration must go to announcing the intention of recognizing Taiwan if China refuses to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy. Anything less will be shrugged off by Beijing as a price they are willing to pay. This would require the type of global leadership in support of values that has long been absent in the free world’s relationship with China—which is exactly how we reached this point.
The free world may have lost its appetite for deterrence since the end of the Cold War, but Beijing is already launching preemptive strikes. Massive new Chinese tariffs against Australia are a poorly disguised retaliation for Australia’s leadership in holding China accountable for covering up the COVID-19 outbreak. The CCP hopes its economic might will quiet its international critics the way its police silence domestic ones.
This is a battle between two contrasting visions of the future—freedom, openness, the rule of law and human rights, represented by the Hong Kong of yesterday, and deception and vicious repression, represented by the Chinese regime that seeks to impose its will on the Hong Kong of today. We must act, at least if we still believe in freedom half as much as the brave Hongkongers risking their lives for it.