The death-knell sounding for freedom in Hong Kong, one of the world’s most open and dynamic city-states, should ring alarm bells for us all, and especially for supporters of another small and beleaguered democracy: Israel.
As elsewhere freedom of expression is threatened, political divisions deepen, and monuments fall, the Chinese Communist Party’s brutally repressive clamp-down on supposedly guaranteed freedoms is redolent of the 1989 Tiananmen Square freedom-movement suppression.
Though not yet as bloody militarily, precisely the threat of forceful repression underlies Communist China’s decree violating the 50-year “one country, two systems” autonomy agreement signed with Great Britain in 1984 and implemented in 1997. In imposing draconic “security” legislation, Beijing is overriding constitutional guarantees to Hong Kong solemnly entered into with Great Britain and overseen by the United Nations.
Free speech and free assembly are outlawed with life sentences mandated for “subversion of state power” and “collusion with foreign forces.” Henceforth, public advocacy of liberty and freedom, through chanting slogans, flying flags or passing petitions, as well as by accusing police of brutality, can lead to arrest and extended imprisonment.
Local police, exempted from due process, can search people at will, freeze assets and engage in warrant-less surveillance. Bail is limited, and possible extradition to Chinese mainland courts is further intimidating free expression and judicial independence. Remarkably, an asserted extra-territorial international applicability makes even the arrest of foreign non-citizens possible if they pass through Hong Kong’s international-hub airport.
Despite the new law — and even as restaurants took down “Freedom” posters and many people edited their social-media accounts for offending messages — thousands still celebrated the 23rd anniversary of the autonomy agreement. Shouting “One Hong Kong, One Nation” and waving now-outlawed independence flags, they were tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed with more 360 were arrested (a dozen or so under the terms of the new law, including a man wearing a “Free Hong Kong” shirt).
Carrie Lam, the city’s Beijing-backed chief executive, praised the new law in Orwellian terms as “constitutional, lawful, reasonable and rational,” claiming it would not undermine “the high degree of autonomy, the judicial independence and the rule of law” in Hong Kong.
Zhang Xiaoming, deputy director of China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, termed the law “a ‘sword of Damocles’ hanging above “the extremely few criminals who are severely endangering national security,” and noted anyone traveling overseas “to spread malicious rumors” could be prosecuted.
Joshua Wong, the young protest leader, disagreed: “The law marks the end of the Hong Kong that the world knew before,” vowing on Twitter to defend his city “until they silence, obliterate me from this piece of land.” Bonnie Leung, another pro-democracy activist, said “we have [now] to avoid throwing ourselves recklessly into jail. … The fear is there. The real danger is there. We have to protect ourselves.”
International reaction was swift. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson denounced China for its “clear and serious” violation of the 1997 agreement, and pledged that the United Kingdom would extend five-year work and study visas to Hong Kong’s 2.9 million British national overseas passport holders.
In the United States, both the House and Senate unanimously passed legislation sanctioning Hong Kong officials threatening the city’s “one country, two systems” autonomy, and any banks supporting them. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took steps to remove the city’s privileged economic status, declaring it now “just another Communist-run city.”
Canada, where many former Hong Kong natives live, issued a statement of concern over the Chinese action and suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong. (Some 300,000 Hong Kong residents currently hold Canadian citizenship.) Former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said China had become “an aggressive global player,” and was “a real threat to Canada and its Western values.”
(Mulroney was criticizing, as politically expedient, 19 Liberal Party establishment figures urging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to release Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou under house arrest in Toronto pending U.S. extradition, in exchange for two Canadians reciprocally imprisoned by China.)
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, responding, warned Canada to “correct its mistakes”, while in Beijing, Professor Xu Zhangrun, 57 — a courageous civil-rights advocate at Tsinghua University, who had described Hong Kong as a “ray of hope” — was summarily arrested. Xu’s warnings about a new “Red Empire” under President Xi Jinping, are worth quoting:
“If you are going to force people into silence, blind them to reality, hamper the natural and free growth of inquiring minds, and instead feed them a diet of a daily 19th-century Germanic-Slavic dogma, then all you’ll end up with is a nation of reduced intellect, a country that has crippled itself.”
China’s repression of dissent was reflected in an image of Professor Xu, surrounded by the Chinese characters for “Free Xu,” painted by the Chinese dissident artist, the Shanghai-born Radiucao, who said “the Iron Curtain is [again] closing.”
At the United Nations, 53 countries, led by Cuba (many of them indebted to Beijing’s “Belt and Road” program for loans) åœwelcomed the Chinese regime’s “Law on Safeguarding National Security.” They noted the principle of “non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states,” claiming that the Hong Kong repression was not “a human-rights issue.”
Hong Kong’s plight, Xu’s arrest and artist Radiucao’s image called to mind Cold War memories of earlier Communist repressions—the 1956 Soviet Hungarian revolt, the 1968 Czech “Prague Spring” and Poland’s long struggle against Communist rule.
Hong Kong’s fate, although not yet sealed, should alarm and give pause to supporters of freedom everywhere, and especially, of democratic Israel.
As political division deepens in American politics, the possibility of a “progressive,” Socialist-dominated and radicalized anti-Israel Democratic Party coming to power is deeply concerning. The foreign, as well as domestic, policy stances of “the “Squad” of Reps. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayana Pressley, and of Sen. Bernie Sanders (being bruited as a potential Secretary of State) increasingly dominate the party.
Israel, of course, is not a tiny semi-autonomous city-state, but a strong sovereign polity with deep religious and historical roots, and a successful modern independence struggle (reinforced today by superb defense forces and nuclear weapons).
But were a globally disengaging United States under a weak president to turn away from it, Israel — not much larger demographically, in fact, than Hong Kong (8.75 million versus 7.5 million) — would find itself alone in a hostile and unstable region.
With a resurgent Russia dominating Syria, an Islamicizing Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pursuing Ottoman imperial dreams, and a genocidal Iran surely, and finally, achieving its nuclear weapon, Israel’s security would be severely imperiled.
Beijing’s move under President Xi to quash Hong Kong’s independence reflects the fact that China has become an aggressive world power. Building up its military (especially its navy), China seeks to expand its influence, from the South and East China Seas to Djibouti, with the $1 trillion ”Belt and Road” investment fund reaching to Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Australia, and recently, to Greece (Piraeus) and Italy.
Recently, Chinese expansionary pressures have led to tensions with the Philippines and Japan to incipient conflict along its border with India and renewed threats against the Republic of China (Taiwan).
The courageous democracy movement in Hong Kong (and, for that matter, in democratic Taiwan) deserves our support.
This is so both intrinsically and politically. Jews generally, and especially Israelis, well know what it means to be isolated and at the mercy of totalitarian powers. More generally, all citizens committed to the values of liberal democracy should at this perilous moment do all they can to let the courageous people of Hong Kong know that they are not alone.
Historian Frederick Krantz is director of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research in Montreal.