Hong Kong’s citizens are right to fear for their “much- cherished freedoms,” Similar national security laws have been used to devastating effect on the mainland since China instituted the first of them in 1993. They have been repeatedly invoked to crush dissent and impose prison sentences on journalists, human rights activists, clergy, and members of the persecuted Uighur Muslim minority—mostly on the pretext that they were “subverting state power.” Hong Kong should expect the same.
China dealt a crushing blow to Hong Kong’s 23-year status as a self-governing territory this week, announcing new national security laws that ban “secessionist or subversive activity” and allow China’s secret police to seize anyone in the city who speaks out against the government. Drafted without input from Hong Kong’s elected legislature, the laws threaten to end the “one country, two systems” policy that has let the city of 7.4 million operate independently of Beijing, with its own courts, laws, and police, since the British ceded it in 1997. Under that agreement, China guaranteed Hong Kong’s constitution, known as the Basic Law, until 2047, but Beijing now says the new laws are necessary to safeguard national security. Protesters took to Hong Kong’s streets in a resurgence of the pro-democracy marches that rocked the city last year. More than 300 were arrested as they defied government lockdowns and battled police pepper spray and water cannons. “I am here to protect my home,” said a 75-year-old protester who called himself Mr. Hui. “We’re the real patriots, not the Communist Party.”
Saying Hong Kong no longer has “autonomy from China,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress that the territory is not entitled to special trade treatment, including the exemption it currently gets from tariffs imposed on China. The Commerce Department added eight Chinese companies to a list of those restricted from doing business with U.S. firms, and the Senate passed a bill that would delist any Chinese state-owned company from U.S. exchanges. President Trump promised additional measures, saying the U.S. would react “very powerfully.”
“China’s forceful takeover of Hong Kong” is a menacing sign for Taiwan, Since China’s Communists drove the Nationalists off the mainland in 1949, the island country has enjoyed only a tenuous grip on self-governance and tacit recognition from the United States. Last week, Beijing called reunification “inevitable,” and its military began planning amphibious- landing exercises designed to simulate the seizure of three Taiwanese atolls in the South China Sea.
China’s “full-scale assault on democracy in Hong Kong” threatens to plunge the U.S.-China relationship further into crisis, For weeks, President Trump has “heaped abuse on the Xi regime,” threatening to walk away from a trade deal as a distraction from his own “abysmal response” to the pandemic. Already faced with a hostile U.S. policy driven by “election-year demagoguery,” Chinese President Xi Jinping may have figured that he had little to lose “by smothering Hong Kong.”
China has “emerged from the pandemic newly emboldened,” Its military has been locked in an escalating border dispute with Indian troops in the Himalayan region, and its navy has been ramping up its campaign to assert dominance in the South China Sea. It seems that Xi has made a reasonable calculation. While his authoritarian grip on his citizens allows him to curtail the virus’ spread within China’s borders, the pandemic has left the West economically crippled and in disarray.
At moments like these, it’s “easy to despair,”But there is “an optimistic case for Hong Kong.” For decades, the city has lived on “borrowed time,” a far-flung British trading outpost situated next to a Communist giant. It endured through the handoff and is today sustained by a citizenry that prizes its right to free speech and assembly. Perhaps this is not “the end of the story,” and once more people will defy the “indiscriminate thumps of the iron fist” to keep alight the fire “that has stirred in so many Hong Kong hearts for generations.”