NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I t has been almost a month since the Chinese Communist Party enacted its invasive “security” law — better called the oppression law. If there had been any doubt before the law’s taking effect that its purpose was not to protect the people of Hong Kong from instability but rather to subject an innocent populace to Beijing’s despotism, there can be none now — even to the most optimistic onlooker.
After the oppression bill became law for Hong Kongers, a chilling effect spread throughout the commercial hub: Pro-democracy activists quieted down, faced with the once-unthinkable reality of being arrested for standing peacefully in public places and voicing their desire for freedom. Shopkeepers were compelled to remove customers’ protest artwork and pro-democracy sticky notes from their shops lest the government punish them for endorsing the democracy camp’s message. Protesters deleted their social-media accounts, as speech that had been legal just days previously was now a potential crime against the government. Members of the press in Hong Kong began to feel as though they could not write freely and objectively without punitive consequences; the New York Times, over the next year, will relocate a third of its staff to Seoul.
These many fears are warranted: The oppression law outright bans any activity that the Chinese government arbitrarily deems subversive, secessionist, or terrorist, as well as what it deems collusion with foreign forces. Indeed, on the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to its status as a Chinese territory — a day that would normally be marked by mass demonstrations — only a few thousand brave souls took to the streets. Police wielding pepper spray and water cannons nevertheless promptly forced the small crowd to disperse. Almost 400 protesters were arrested, including a 15-year-old girl who was simply waving an independence flag. It is perhaps only a matter of time before the authorities start handing out life-imprisonment sentences for their political enemies — such harsh punishments are permitted under the oppression law — or even worse.
But if there is any silver lining to Hong Kong’s terrifying condition, it is the resilience with which Hong Kong’s democracy activists have met the restrictions of the CCP. Like true Darwinian specimens adapting to adverse conditions, Hong Kong’s protesters have switched up their tactics, bending the measures of the oppression law without breaking them. Since colorful posters with pro-democracy slogans have become synonymous with “subversion” — a big red target for authorities on the prowl — activists have begun to display crafty signs that appear, when seen from afar, to convey pro-democracy messages, but that, on closer inspection, are nothing but squiggles and odd shapes. At least a few activists have already stumped police with such signs, evading arrest. Others have begun to hold up blank white signs, or to put up blank white sticky notes in their shops.
Perhaps such tactics, once they, too, have become synonymous with democracy, will likewise be banned by the CCP and its proxy government officials in Hong Kong. But if so, the activists will have won a significant moral victory: They will have shown to the world that the Chinese Communists under President Xi Jinping are so desperate for power that they are literally willing to ban people from displaying blank white pieces of paper.
The protesters’ symbolic measures are far from their only strong response to the oppression law. On July 10, authorities sent a sinister message to voters by raiding an independent polling station on the eve of an unofficial primary vote for the city’s pro-democracy camp. The raid came only hours after the same station released a survey finding that 61 percent of Hong Kongers view their city as no longer being free. But over 600,000 voters showed up the next day to vote anyway, resoundingly nominating pro-democracy and pro-demonstration candidates. These voters were emboldened by the courage of the most visible activists, whose sustained efforts yielded one of the biggest victories to date for the pro-democracy camp.
Of course, as with many autocratic regimes, voters could find their choices invalidated in the general elections. In that case, though, the CCP, which normally prefers to operate in secrecy, would have its despotism unmasked for all to see.
Standing up for their beliefs against a superpower with no respect for individual rights and little regard for the essential preciousness of human lives, Hong Kong’s protesters are an example of bravery, creativity, and resourcefulness in the face of adversity. For Americans — long accustomed to having our freedoms safeguarded by our centuries-old Constitution — this is a bracing reminder of what’s at stake in the fight for liberty. Whatever actions the allies of freedom are willing or able to muster against Communist China, advocates for Hong Kong’s autonomy should hope that the activists continue to resist — to the point that Beijing finds the unrest so damaging to its global image that it decides that dominating Hong Kong is not worth the cost.
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