NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T hirty-one years ago, thousands of innocent lives were lost when the Chinese government violently attacked unarmed students and other citizens demonstrating for freedom and democracy in Tiananmen Square, and elsewhere, on June 4, 1989. China’s dramatically rising power and influence on the global stage have been accompanied by the government’s persistent efforts to destroy, censor, conceal, and suppress information about the Tiananmen massacre, in particular the courage and defiance encapsulated in the image of the “Tank Man.” But over time, the image has become emblematic of the nature of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and a deep stain on its moral legitimacy that, like the imagined blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands, won’t wash off.
Indeed, with China’s rise, Tiananmen’s implications have become global. They are embedded in China’s subversion of international human rights, and indeed, in the coronavirus pandemic: Had China changed course and turned toward democracy, transparency, and accountability in 1989, it almost certainly would not have inflicted the current storm of death and economic destruction upon the world.
Tiananmen was a tragic and imprudent mistake, one the CCP could have learned from. Instead, in the decades since, it has added other grievous errors to its historical record, including massive new assaults on religious freedom. While China has received international criticism, nothing any foreign country or international institution has done or said has weakened these policies. Rather, the CCP has tightened its inhumane grip on the Chinese people.
Now, as China moves decisively to impose national-security legislation that will abrogate its treaty obligation to preserve Hong Kong’s liberal system and remove its citizens’ most important political freedoms, the limits of international leverage, already hardened by self-interest and disinterest, once again come into focus. Make no mistake: China will not be deterred by outraged appeals by American senators, and certainly not by limp, anodyne statements from the European Union.
With China facing its worst economic performance in 50 years, the CCP’s unforced errors have crippled China and the markets upon which it depends. In a corner, like a defensive wild beast, the regime has reacted with irrational aggression, confirming that its leadership exists in a bubble of denial. Xi Jinping thinks China’s post-modern, narrative-bending propaganda can reverse the pandemic’s damage to China’s legitimacy in the minds of both its own people and the world’s. He believes China can silence its critics by threats. And he thinks China’s illegal crackdown will force Hong Kongers into submission, rescuing his legacy.
But it won’t. Hong Kong is not dead, and we need only look back toward Tiananmen to see why. After 1989, heroes such as Liu Xiaobo and many others emerged despite an arbitrarily enforced “National Security Law,” revealing by their courage and sacrifices the immorality and fraudulence of the Chinese Communist regime. The people of Hong Kong are better equipped, spiritually, politically, and materially, as well as internationally, than the 1989 generation of human-rights dissidents (including one of us, Yang Jianli).
Unlike the mainlanders, the people of Hong Kong have lived in freedom, under the rule of law, and in a polity close to a democracy. They have a better understanding of, and treasure more, a life of freedom and dignity. Backing down before Chinese Communist Party pressure would mean the end of their way of life, the end of their unique and cherished identity and community, and indeed, a kind of spiritual death. They are ready to sacrifice their lives to avoid this.
The CCP has never represented the people of Hong Kong any more than it has represented the people of Taiwan, and it never will. Their political movement is strong and viable. The main source of this strength is its unity: It brings together in common cause moderates and radicals, old and young, and different economic groups, all of whom are disciplined enough to permit efficient movement coordination. The Hong Kongers also use cutting-edge information technology, communication systems, and organizational techniques that connect them with each other, and with supporters around the world.
The people of Hong Kong are on the frontline of a new Cold War, pitting China and other dictatorial states against governments based on freedom, democracy, and consent. Free and democratic governments and societies can and must support them. But to do so meaningfully, they must reach beyond the sclerotic and corrupted bureaucracy of the United Nations and the confines of traditional diplomacy, which don’t work with bad-faith partners, as the shattered treaty with the United Kingdom shows. America’s Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act needs to be enforced vigorously. If it is, it will threaten to withdraw all U.S. preferential treatments and privileges granted to Hong Kong as an autonomous entity unless its freedom is restored, and to punish individual officials and perpetrators. Both actions would have more teeth than what other countries are doing, and hence would be more effective in terms of deterrence and punishment. Other democracies should form their own versions of this Act.
Do the people of Hong Kong, and of mainland China, want to live as faceless and powerless servants of CCP elites, their moral choices limited, forced into complicity in crimes against political and religious minorities? Do Chinese leaders want to ride the current regime down, and face an explosion of discontent? Ultimately, the battle for Hong Kong is a battle of ideas, one in which liberal societies, which have in recent decades lost some of their own commitment to freedom, have a huge stake. “Tank men” of Hong Kong will do their part. We must do ours as well.
Yang Jianli, a survivor of the Tiananmen Square massacre, is the founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China. Aaron Rhodes is the president of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe and the human-rights editor of Dissident magazine.