Authoritarian regimes the world over, from Vladimir Putin’s Russia to Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuela, have used the COVID-19 pandemic to tighten their grip on power and stamp out dissent.
Nowhere has this been truer than in Hong Kong, where, under the boot of Beijing and local enablers like Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the mass protests of 2019 have all but vanished, pro-democracy activists and legislators have been surveilled, harassed and arrested, and the promise of “One Country, Two Systems” has ended, to quote T.S. Eliot, “Not with a bang but a whimper.”
Even amid a global pandemic, a heated election, and the endless flood of local and national news, we’ve kept our readers informed on Hong Kong because we believe, as we wrote in May, “We are engaged in a battle of ideas on the world’s stage. And in that struggle, we should wish for Hong Kong’s democracy advocates to prevail and press back against the ideology emanating out from Beijing.”
What exactly is that ideology? Former Texas congressman and outgoing U.S. National Security Director John Ratcliffe defined it well in a recent op-ed for The Wall Street Journal: “China’s leaders seek to subordinate the rights of the individual to the will of the Communist Party. They exert government control over companies and subvert the privacy and freedom of their citizens with an authoritarian surveillance state.”
Ratcliffe rightly called Beijing’s authoritarian model, and its export throughout the world, a “once-in-a-generation challenge” on par with the rise of fascism and Soviet expansionism in the 20th century.
If this sounds like a message to the incoming Biden administration, that’s because it is. Hitting a “reset” button with Beijing while it uses its growing economic, technological and military power to spread its authoritarian brand of capitalism to client states would be an even more grievous error than cozying up to the Kremlin.
The good news here is that President-elect Joe Biden has repeatedly said, most recently in an interview with CNN, that his administration will “make it real clear to China there are international rules that, if you want to play by, we’ll play with you. If you don’t, we’re not going to play.” He said this included halting “the stealing of nation secrets” as well as proprietary tech and medical research similar to what the State Department alleges Chinese spies have stolen from the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and the Texas A&M medical system. As for China’s requirement that tech companies in China be 51% Chinese-owned, he said plainly, “That’s not going to happen in our administration.”
We’ve long argued that multilateral pressure on China — through organizations the U.S. helped found like the World Trade Organization and trade agreements like the abandoned Trans Pacific Partnership — are more effective than going it alone with punitive tariffs and a trade war that has for the most part hurt U.S. farmers and manufacturers more than China.
Moreover, by abandoning the TPP and hamstringing the WTO, the U.S. has opened the door for China to lead on trade and form its own free trade agreements, as it recently did with 14 other Asia-Pacific economies when it joined the Regional Economic Partnership Agreement, now the world’s largest trading bloc.
We’ve also argued for direct sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials through passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which, we’re pleased to say, was championed early and often by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and signed into law last November. Since then, however, the clampdown in Hong Kong has intensified, resulting in the mass resignation of the remaining pro-democracy legislators in the legislature, and, just last week the imprisonment of democracy activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam.
Why does Hong Kong, a relatively wealthy “Special Administrative Region” in China, matter so much, especially when more than a million Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang are subject to what the U.S. State Department has called “human rights violations and abuses against individuals in mass detention”?
That question was answered by two Hong Kong democracy activists, Nathan Law Kwun Chung and Alex Chow, friends and comrades of the now-imprisoned Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam, who wrote the following from exile last week:
“Hong Kong is at the front lines of the resistance against Beijing’s authoritarianism; what happens there should matter to anyone anywhere who cares about the future of freedom, especially since Beijing is trying to export its high-tech, repressive ways to the world.”
If Americans can agree on one thing, regardless of political affiliation, it is that we “care about the future of freedom.” For this reason alone, we must rebuild alliances and welcome new partners, both economic and strategic, to resist the spread of authoritarianism. Hong Kong — like the U.S., a former British colony — is ground zero in this worthy struggle.