The arrest this week of 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen marks a new low in China’s destruction of Hong Kong’s democracy. Cardinal Zen, Roman Catholic bishop of Hong Kong from 2002 to 2009, was arrested along with other prominent activists, including lawmaker Margaret Ng and pop star and gay rights activist Denise Ho. Their alleged crime? Participated in an organization that provided bail and legal advice to those arrested during the 2019 pro-democracy protests.
China’s strategy to ban dissent has evolved since the brutal crackdown on protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square 33 years ago. It no longer relies on chariots; in Hong Kong, it silently stifles opposition.
Hong Kong is no longer a democracy, because people are afraid. They are so scared that many are leaving for the UK, Australia, Taiwan and elsewhere. More than 200,000 people, or about 3% of the population, have left since the start of 2020. If they stay, they go on mute.
Individuals and organizations crumble because those who don’t surrender are in jail. The Confederation of Pro-Democracy Trade Unions shut down last year after it reported it would be charged under a vague and expansive national security law. The organizers of the annual June 4 vigils commemorating the Tiananmen killings have been disbanded. Amnesty International has withdrawn from Hong Kong. Even the Foreign Correspondents’ Club has canceled its annual human rights awards.
Organizations that don’t get the message are punished. The General Union of Speech-Language Pathologists in Hong Kong had its operating license revoked last year after five of its members were charged with sedition over an illustrated children’s book. Pro-democracy lawyer Paul Harris, who headed the Hong Kong Bar Association, fled the territory in March after being questioned by National Security Law police.
Opposition newspapers have been shut down by the government or closed out of concern for the safety of staff. Apple Daily, pro-democracy – I was a director of its parent company – had its bank account frozen and seven of its employees imprisoned. Most of them have not been tried, let alone convicted. For nearly a year, my colleagues have been held in prison without bail, in violation of Hong Kong’s own laws and international protections.
Jailing people without trial – especially in the midst of the pandemic – and subjecting them to lengthy and costly legal harassment is less dramatic and definitive than sending in tanks, but it may be more effective as the world gradually ceases to pay attention to it. Important institutions crumble until only the government is left.
But inattention would be a serious mistake. China wants the world to believe that resistance is futile and that its vision of an authoritarian future is unstoppable. He has sworn to take back Taiwan, an independent country with its own government, even if it means war. Ignoring Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s crackdown in Hong Kong is an invitation for him to act on democratic Taiwan, with horrific consequences for the Taiwanese people and the global economy.
Mr. Xi is testing the United States and other democratic societies. It violated international treaties and Hong Kong’s own constitution by depriving the territory of freedom. Mr. Xi lied when he promised President Obama during a White House meeting in 2015 that he would not militarize the South China Sea. China is laying the groundwork for a naval presence in Cambodia, Sri Lanka and the Solomon Islands as it expands its reach in the Pacific and beyond.
Hong Kong was the first free and prosperous city destroyed by a totalitarian state since the end of World War II. This is where the values of an open society came into conflict with a closed society and got lost.
Hong Kong no longer has the right to be considered a unique member of the international community. The territory should be stripped of its privileged status in the economic, commercial, health and sports groups, where it benefits from its own membership, distinct from that of China. These bodies include the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization and the International Olympic Committee.
Beijing treats Hong Kong as a troublesome peripheral region that needed to be crushed. The world must recognize this harsh reality.
Mr. Clifford is Chairman of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong and author of “Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow the World: What China’s Crackdown Reveals About Its Plans to End Freedom Everywhere”.
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