Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

A Tragic Loss

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, May 26, 2020 --  

Today's battle for freedom in Hong Kong cannot be won. Activists must live to fight another day.

It took less than half an hour before the tear gas canisters began flying in Hong Kong.1  The largest pro-democracy demonstration in months saw a Sunday confrontation between police and activists, leading to the arrest of 180 demonstrators.2

Such mass protests had been common for much of 2019 and early this year, as Hong Kong's youth raged about the communist central government's encroachment on the territory's autonomy.  But when the global pandemic began to spread over from the mainland, responsible Hong Kongers began to stay home like the rest of us, focussed on saving lives rather than saving freedoms.  Protests all but petered out.

This all changed last week when Beijing announced a surprise attack on the territory's autonomy.  The central government said it  plans to impose a new national security law on Hong Kong and place mainland security services in the territory to enforce them. 

Without question, Xi Jinping's communist government is seizing an opportunity from the the pandemic to impose repression and effectively end the territory's civil autonomy.  Covid infections are at a nadir in China, and Hong Kong's protest movement has recently been quiet.  

Indeed, Sunday's crackdown was partly justified by the pandemic.  Before firing tear gas, police unfurled banners declaring the demonstrations illegal under social distancing laws and ordering protesters to disperse.  Hong Kong's restless youth did not comply.  They know they are risking disease, but also know their liberties are at stake. Without a doubt, the pandemic will be fleeting.  But Hong Kong's current freedoms, once lost to Bejing, will be lost forever.

There may be no good way to stop the communists from imposing their will on Hong Kong.  Westerners can rage about violations of the "one country two systems" agreement.  But China simply doesn't respect the rule of law, so who cares?

The communists know they has already lost the hearts and minds of Hong Kongers.  Residents' attitudes have hardened against the mainland.  Calls for independence by more radical activists  are growing.  China denounces these as inspired by foreign meddling.  But the reality is that the central government has brought the mistrust upon itself.   The planned power grab is a cynical attempt to change a losing dynamic at a moment of opportunity.

Once China imposes its will, things will be looking very bad for Hong Kong's democracy activists. Mainland security agents will be in place to arrest anyone demonstrating against the central government, and use its anti-sedition law to take action against anyone who has expressed radical views in the past.  Don't expect these security forces to defer to Hong Kong's common law courts to approve arrests and de-facto deportations to the mainland.   Judges may not dare rule against the central security services -- perhaps such rulings might also be considered sedition.

Beijing probably knows it cannot hope to overcome youth resentment of the central government. The best it can achieve is to scare people into being as cowed and submissive as those who live in the mainland. Beijing can then work to indoctrinate the next generation.

While Westerners may not be able to stop China, they can still play a constructive role.  Report the truth.  Call China out for its repression. Hand out visas liberally.  Help activists get out before it's too late.  No regime lasts forever, and the People's Republic has been operating on borrowed time for 30 years.  Once the Communist Party's hold over mainland China begins to wane, perhaps activists will be able to return home to help Hong Kong regain the freedoms it is now poised to lose.

Humanity's path to freedom is not a steady march.  Backsliding and setbacks are common.  But the long term trend is unmistakable and to those yearning for freedom, it's irresistible.  

Hong Kong 2020 may join a list of other tragic losses to freedom:  Tiananmen 1989, Soweto 1976, Prague 1968, Budapest 1956.  But remember:  outside China, all of these places triumphantly gained their freedom in subsequent years.  Let us hope that history is ultimately as kind to Hong Kongers and other Chinese as it has been to the rest of the world.

Related Web Columns:

Resentful Subjects, November 26, 2019

Cowed and Bamboozled, September 3, 2019

The Other China, June 18, 2019


1. CNN, Hong Kong Protesters Have Promised a 'Miracle' but China's National Security Law Seems Impossible to Stop, May 25, 2020

2. South China Morning Post, Tear Gas Fired, Arrests Made as Thousands Protest Against Beijing’s Planned National Security Law for Hong Kong, May 24, 2020