In Hong Kong’s huge protest over a proposed law that would allow extradition from the territory to mainland China, there is far more at stake than “confidence” in the integrity of Hong Kong’s legal system, or the health of Hong Kong’s economy — important though those both are. The real showdown going on in Hong Kong has long been between despotism and democracy, between tyranny and the Free World. And whether we, the free people of America, and our allies, choose to think of it this way or not, the reality is that the showdown now taking place in Hong Kong will shape our future as well.
For two reasons, the people of Hong Kong — in their efforts to stop this ruinous extradition law — deserve the strongest support we can muster. One reason is quite simply that it is the right thing to do, though in international politics that is often a backseat priority. The other reason– perhaps more compelling to those inclined to think of Hong Kong as a faraway foreign place and none of our business — is that it is a high-risk precedent for the Free World to abandon its own. It invites aggression by the likes of China (and Russia, Iran, North Korea, etc.) against us and our allies. Which is what it will boil down to, if the U.S., the U.K. and other democratic powers do not find some way to buttress the demands of Hong Kong’s demonstrators. It is vital that Washington persuade Beijing and its satrap in Hong Kong, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, that it would be wise to scrap this proposed law, and moronic –or at least astoundingly expensive — to push it through.
Please, make no mistake. Officially Hong Kong these days may be a “Special Autonomous Region” of the “People’s Republic” of China, destined under treaty to fall entirely under Beijing’s jackboot in 2047. But in spirit, in character, in history, in the inheritance of British rule of law, and for another full 28 years according to China’s promise of “One Country, Two Systems,” Hong Kong is one of our own, still part of the Free World. If we do not stand up for its people, China’s rulers will all too likely read that abandonment as one more sign of Western weakness, one more invitation to commit the next act of aggression.
The argument against this law ought to be obvious to anyone remotely familiar with the Chinese Communist Party grinding machine that is China’s system of “justice.” China is one of the most repressive countries on earth; host to the digital “Great Firewall,” home to an Orwellian new system of “social credit,” domain of the increasingly repressive rule of de facto president-for-life, Xi Jinping. China is a polity where for years now the murderous rule of communism has been morphing into a brutal techno-tyranny with ambitions to become the dominant world power of the 21st century.
China’s ruling party, with its monopoly on power, has a record of treating peaceful political dissent not as a right, but as a crime. In practice, there is no free speech, no freedom of assembly, no right to call for genuine democracy — let alone implement it. Outside China, the Tiananmen uprising of 1989 is remembered with honor; inside China, the government wants it stuffed down the memory hole. Under Beijing’s approach to “law,” China’s Nobel peace laureate, repeatedly-jailed democratic dissident Liu Xiaobo, was well into serving an 11-year prison sentence when he died of cancer in 2017.
Hong Kong, by contrast, has official claim to membership of the Free World until at least 2047, under the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, the bilateral treaty that laid out the basic conditions for Britain’s handover in 1997 of colonial Hong Kong to China. Hong Kong, by way of its broader history and character, has long been deserving of far better treatment than anything Britain and China agreed to in that deal — which China now seems bent on dishonoring.
Here I would add a few words about Hong Kong’s history, which has perhaps already affected today’s world more than we realize. I speak as someone who first beheld (and loved) Hong Kong while traveling through as a teenager in 1969, then returned and lived there from 1986-1993, working as editorial page editor of The Asian Wall Street Journal. That was a front row seat for some of this history as it played out.
Hong Kong in the post-World War II decades of the 20th century became one of the marvels of the globe. As a British Crown Colony with a magnificent harbor, Hong Kong married British rule of law to free trade. This mix, combined with the enterprise of the Chinese — including many who had fled the repression of communist rule in mainland China — turned Hong Kong into one of the world’s great cities, a thriving hub of commerce, an economic powerhouse. Hong Kong was not a democracy. It was ruled by a British governor. But that governor was answerable to Britain’s system of democracy and law. That arrangement went a great distance toward acquainting Hong Kong’s people with the rights, freedoms and institutions of the Free World.
And so came the 1980s, part of the post-colonial era, in which almost everywhere else on earth, colonial subjugation had become a prelude to independence. Hong Kong, by then a polity of millions, was richly qualified for independence. It was far better prepared for self-rule than most. But China, which had ceded Hong Kong in perpetuity to Britain in the 19th century Opium Wars, wanted Hong Kong back. A diplomatic showdown took place. In London, there was great interest in the growing China trade, and little appetite for a serious confrontation to protect a colony that one way or another Britain in the post-colonial era was likely to give up. In what amounted to a cold political calculation, Britain’s then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher backed down and cut a deal — the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration — to hand over Hong Kong to China in 1997.
There was, of course, the awkward problem that while Britain had been broadly divesting itself of empire by way of giving independence to its colonies, in this case, the plan was to hand over the Crown Colony of Hong Kong to a monstrously repressive dictatorship. So, in the name of protecting Hong Kong, the British cut a deal with China that for 50 years following the 1997 handover — until 2047 — Hong Kong would enjoy a high degree of autonomy. Beijing would leave Hong Kong to manage its own domestic affairs, under its own rule of law.
It was always highly doubtful that China would honor this deal. China’s promise of 50 years of “One Country, Two Systems” served as a convenient fig leaf for Britain to claim it had not simply abandoned Hong Kong to China’s mercies. But once the British struck the Union Jack in 1997, it was always going to be a desperately unequal struggle between the desire of Hong Kong’s people to protect their rights and liberties, and the preference of Beijing to crush any dissent within its dominions — especially anything that might inspire similar dissent within mainland China itself.
Beijing surely understood the real nature and meaning of the Hong Kong handover, and read its implicit betrayal of Hong Kong’s people as a sign that the great Western democracies, when challenged, would not stand up for their own. The handover of Hong Kong was one of the early green lights along the path of predatory behavior that China’s tyranny is now traveling at speed — from cyber warfare, to other forms of rapid military modernization and buildup, to the construction of artificial islands topped with military bases to threaten freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, to debt traps and influence operations along the “Belt and Road Initiative” and way beyond, reaching into American towns, businesses, politics and universities.
Hong Kong’s best hope was always to deflect as long as possible the encroachments of Beijing’s despotic system. For years already, this has entailed a defiant retreat, step by step, in which some of Hong Kong’s people have heroically taken the risks of speaking up, of engaging in public protest, as they have been step by step badgered, bullied, threatened and prosecuted for their efforts. The fleeting hope of Hong Kong’s people having a real say in the choosing of their own chief executive gave way years ago to a China-choreographed arrangement in which Beijing effectively makes the pick. Thus did Carrie Lam become the local top boss in 2017, the same Lam now making the mind-bending claim that Hong Kong’s legal system would be greatly improved by a law enabling extradition to mainland China.
For Hong Kong, the real prospect would be a reign of fear. Anyone targeted by China as a “criminal” could face extradition, to be dealt with under the same brand of “justice” that consigned China’s Nobel peace laureate to prison. The implications for peaceful dissent of any kind are chilling.
Hong Kong’s people have no way to replace Carrie Lam via the ballot box. So they did what they could, while they still have some freedom to do so. Last Sunday, in a city of seven million, some one million demonstrators marched through the streets to protest the proposed extradition law. In the press, this has been dubbed Hong Kong’s “last stand.”
How, precisely, China (or Hong Kong’s titular boss, Ms. Lam) might be compelled to scrap this proposed extradition law is a question perhaps best left to President Trump’s national security team. But if America, Britain and the rest of the world’s great democracies do not stand squarely, clearly and convincingly with the heroes of Hong Kong, there is a great danger that China will read the further abandonment of Hong Kong’s people as yet another signal that the Free World will not defend its own. For that, not so far down the road, there’s almost certainly a steep price to be paid by all of us.