OPINION

We Must Not Forget Hong Kong.

It's up to us—citizens of a free and open society—to defend the democratic future of Hong Kong.

As midnight approached Hong Kong on July 1st, 1997, a wrinkled and waterlogged Prince Charles unfolded a speech from between his formal scabbard and the pocket of his Naval uniform. Speaking at the ceremonial handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China, the Prince of Wales avoided the gaze of both the audience and the camera, opting instead to tip forward his peaked cap and drown his eyes in shadow (proof that though looks are hereditary, dignity is not). “We shall not forget you,” he concluded. Minutes later, the Union Jack was lowered, the Chinese National Flag was raised, and Prince Charles slunk away in a Rolls Royce.

Lai’s heroic use of media to taunt the CCP and preserve democracy contributed to the rebellious spirit of Hong Kong that established the city as a radiant garrison of western values.

That royal promise may now be ringing distantly through the head of Jimmy Lai, the most prominent victim of China’s omnibus National Security Law imposed in June of this year. Chinese officials arrested Lai in August and recently prosecuted him on camouflaged charges of fraud.

In many ways, Lai is a living embodiment of Hong Kong’s role as the final lighthouse of democracy sitting delicately on the shores of a censored and silent China. After entering Hong Kong as a stowaway at age twelve, Lai turned a trivial job at a garment factory into the foundation of retail clothing giant Giordano. Following the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square, Lai wielded his fortune to lambast the Chinese government by creating Next Magazine in 1990 and Apple Daily in 2003. In 2003, when China first attempted to impose a National Security Law, hundreds of thousands marched in the streets of Hong Kong in protest. Apple Daily joined the protesters in their dissent, running the front page: “See You On The Streets.” Lai’s heroic use of media to taunt the CCP and preserve democracy contributed to the rebellious spirit of Hong Kong that established the city as a radiant garrison of western values.

Twenty-three years since Prince Charles’ cowardly speech, the light of Hong Kong that Lai fought to protect has been nearly extinguished.

Pro-democracy activists skirmish with riot police.

Pro-democracy activists skirmish with riot police.

EMPTY PROMISES DO NOTHING TO SLOW CHINA’S ENCROACHMENT ON HONG KONG

China’s recent encroachment on Hong Kong is evidence for why the country deserves to be treated as incompatible with democratic, free-thinking western societies. From behind a charade of respect and the oft-repeated motto “one country, two systems,” Beijing has quietly strangled the democratic freedoms that allowed Hong Kong to thrive as it has since its post-WWII industrialization: an economic and cultural beacon of western ideals, blossoming in an Eastern nation.

With Beijing dragging away the remaining dissenters within Hong Kong, those clinging to the hope of a democratic future must look outside of China for help.

Xi Jinping is waging an all-out war on democratic practices in Hong Kong. His growing list of erasures include granting Beijing the sole power to appoint Hong Kong’s Chief Executivecriminalizing any disrespect of the Chinese national anthem, and arresting pro-democracy lawmakers for dissent. Recently, Xi has incorporated Tianxia, the Chinese “Mandate of Heaven,” into his vision for China’s future global relations. In 2017, Xi described this vision as establishing a world that “is united and all under heaven are one family.” (Only, in this heaven, Xi plays the role of God.) The Hong Kong protesters are not only fighting an authoritarian regime; they are battling the will of a man who sees himself as God.

With Beijing dragging away the remaining dissenters within Hong Kong, those clinging to the hope of a democratic future must look outside of China for help. Unfortunately for them, President-Elect Joe Biden has remained silent on the oppression of Hong Kong, avoiding any attempt to upset the international juggernaut before his inauguration. Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan expressed his concern about the Hong Kong arrests on Twitter, declaring “unity with our allies and partners against China’s assault on Hong Kong’s freedoms.” It is a shame that Sullivan could find no space in his 246 characters to mention Jimmy Lai by name.

Such tweets are now typical after the arrest of political dissidents in Hong Kong. Lawmakers and commentators from both sides of the aisle bravely sacrifice a tweet and then forget the issue entirely.

In December, Ted Cruz blocked a bill that would have provided refugee status for Hong Kong citizens. According to Cruz, “This is not a Hong Kong Bill. It is, instead, a Democratic messaging bill because House Democrats made, I think, a cynical decision to try to exploit the crisis in Hong Kong to advance their long-standing goals of changing our immigration laws.” In July, President Donald Trump signed an executive order condemning China’s National Security Law. He has spent the following months far more preoccupied with his own future, however, than with the future of Hong Kong—let alone the draconian measures China’s recently enacted.

China’s National Security Law is intentionally ambiguous, allowing Chinese authorities to inflict harsh punishments for nearly any act of protest. In the section on “Terrorist Activities,” the law outlines how arson, violence, and public damage can result in “life imprisonment,” and anyone associating with the individuals committing these acts can also be sentenced to “fixed-term imprisonment.” Speaking to the New York Times, Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, described the law as “devastating in that it appears to have no bounds.”

In the months since the U.S. announced their sanctions on Hong Kong officials, those same government elites have arrested numerous leaders of the Hong Kong independence movement.

In response to the new National Security Law, The U.S. briefly flexed its strength against China back in August when Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin imposed sanctions on Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the cold face of Chinese authority who controls the once democratic city. The sanctions received unanimous support from both houses; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described Lam’s imposition of the National Security Law as “cowardly.”

But China’s actions have been anything but cowardly. In the months since the U.S. announced their sanctions on Hong Kong officials, those same government elites have arrested numerous leaders of the Hong Kong independence movement. Joshua Wong, Ivan Lam, and Agnes Chow, who began fighting against Beijing as mere teenagers, were detained. Now, they face more than a year in prison for protesting Chinese authoritarianism.

Following the arrests of these student leaders, U.S. politicians maintained their foolish strategy of denouncing the Chinese government on Twitter while turning their backs on those currently suffering in Hong Kong prisons for the crime of defending democracy. While the U.S. remains embroiled with petty electoral disputes and measly COVID-19 relief measures, China strengthens its grip around the necks of those shouting loudest for Hong Kong’s freedom. Who now, Speaker Pelosi, are acting like cowards?

One can only imagine the torturous anger of Joshua Wong, strapped in a prison cell, receiving the news that yes, the U.S. has denounced his imprisonment, but no, they are not going to do a damn thing about it. As U.S. politicians shake their fists and close their eyes, Chinese officials continue their slow march forward.

Riot police.

Riot police.

NOT ALL MOVEMENTS ARE CREATED EQUAL

In June, The Guardian’s Helen Davidson questioned the Hong Kong protesters’ sincerity after they did not hold their own BLM rally following the killing of George Floyd. Davidson equated the two protests as “decentralized human rights movements with a huge focus on police brutality.”

In the United States, people have the right to protest. In Hong Kong, people are fighting not to have the right to protest taken away.

“Some Hongkongers distanced their movements from the destruction of the US protests by saying Hong Kong protesters didn’t loot, appearing to suggest there was more justification in the US police crackdowns, while also ignoring that there had been some vandalism and violence in Hong Kong,” Davidson continued.

Such an equivocation displays ignorance of the highest degree. The Hong Kong protesters are battling with an authoritarian regime that is hell-bent on stripping away their democratic freedoms. In the United States, people have the right to protest. In Hong Kong, people are fighting not to have the right to protest taken away.

It’s telling that officials in the Chinese Communist Party have attempted to use the Black Lives Matter protests as a distraction from their human rights violations. Following George Floyd’s death, Chinese spokesperson Hua Chunying tweeted “I can’t breathe” in response to U.S. State Department spokesperson Morgan Otagus’s criticism of Chinese encroachment in Hong Kong. In June, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said, “Racial discrimination is a long-lasting problem in the United States. Black lives matter and their human rights should be guaranteed.” Quite the statement of peace and harmony from a man whose party is detaining China’s Uighur population in “re-education” camps and arresting Hong Kong politicians for protesting at a university.

American’s should vehemently refuse this equivocation that Black Lives Matter is anything like the Free Hong Kong movement. Hong Kong’s fight for democracy holds far more in common with American values than the distorted BLM movement, and comparing the Hong Kong protests with the Black Lives Matter movement that burned its way across America this summer reveals a corroded value system at the heart of American political life. Our inability to champion Hong Kong’s fight proves not only that many Americans take democracy for granted, but that many no longer view democracy as worth defending.

Instead, we allow justified denunciations of police brutality to spiral into deliberately misleading accusations that every American institution is a participant in all-encompassing systemic racism. Yes, the Hong Kong crisis is more geographically distant than isolated instances of police brutality within the United States, but the reaction of Hong Kong protesters strikes far nearer to the promise of the constitution than a BLM movement that survives on a diet of accusations of racism and calls to defund the police. Rather than recognize the beauty of the American system, as many Hong Kong protesters have, BLM has failed to appreciate how lucky they are to even have the right to protest.

After all, BLM is one of the most petulant social movements in recent memory. In response to the movement’s allegation that America is an inherently evil nation rooted solely on slavery, Democrat politicians have closed their mouths and nodded along. They knelt rather than critically engage with the arguments of the protesters and rioters. Even COVID-19 knelt to BLM: scientists and politicians hastily rewrote pandemic restrictions to allow thousands of screaming and sweating protesters to gather en masse. Progressive corporate elites fared no differently: Nike, Amazon, and Apple rushed to express solidarity with BLM without reconsidering their exploitation of Chinese workers. Disney, who filmed the live-action Mulan in the Xinjiang region of China, which is home to the Uyghur concentration camps, also expressed their support for BLM. Take it from Disney—black lives matter, Uyghur lives don’t.

[P]oliticians cannot be relied upon to defend Hong Kong’s democracy…

Nowhere was the hypocrisy of these elite corporations more apparent than during the NBA playoffs, when “Black Lives Matter” was plastered across the hardwood. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver regarded this decision as emblematic of the league’s “bedrock principles” to support “racial equality and social justice.” But when General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” in October 2019, the NBA rushed to denounce his comments as “regrettable.” Evidently, the Hong Kong fight against Chinese authoritarianism does not fit the league’s definition of “social justice.”

The NBA’s public deference to Beijing clarified a difficult question at the heart of the Free Hong Kong and Black Lives Matter comparison: does a movement remain sincere when the world’s wealthiest, most powerful corporations endorse it? The betrayal of Hong Kong answers this question: no.

The new year will determine the survival of a democratic Hong Kong, the one that Jimmy Lai, Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Agnes Chow have fought to preserve. With much of the world still concerned with COVID-19 and scrambling to construct life post-pandemic, Hong Kong is at risk of being forgotten entirely. We can only hope that the next twelve months will consist of firm defenses of democracy—rather than limp evasions of responsibility and prolific but hollow tweeting.

Were Joe Biden a courageous politician, he would use Hong Kong as a unifying symbol of western democracy, one that must be defended. Equally responsible for Hong Kong’s future is UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson—the leader of the nation that gave up Hong Kong to China in 1997. The past year, however, has exposed U.S. and UK politicians as hypocrites and frauds, grinning as they slammed the economy shut and forced citizens indoors for months on end. Such politicians cannot be relied upon to defend Hong Kong’s democracy, let alone the democracies that elected them. Instead, it is up to those who enjoy the benefits of a free and open society to defend the democratic hopes of Hong Kong’s citizens. We must take back the promise that Prince Charles could not keep. We must not forget Hong Kong.

Written By:

Jack Capizzi is a Junior at the University of Chicago studying History and Politics. Reach him at capizzi@uchicago.edu or on Twitter.