NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE W hen Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai was arrested late last week, he was paraded through the offices of his newspaper, Apple Daily, in handcuffs. The 72-year-old businessman was hardly a threat to the arresting officers, and during his previous interactions with law enforcement he had never been cuffed like that. But Beijing’s proxies in Hong Kong wanted a photo op.
Lai’s arrest was not an isolated incident. Monday also saw the arrests of other key figures in the city’s pro-democracy movement, including Agnes Chow — a pro-democracy campaigner who formerly led the Demosisto Party with Joshua Wong — and executives from Lai’s company, in addition to his sons. Given other recent events, such as the year-long delay of Legislative Council elections and the detention of 25 people who attended a vigil for the June Fourth Massacre, the arrests have forced many to reckon with what seems to be the end of democracy in Hong Kong.
By the end of Tuesday, all of those arrested had been released on bail, but there remains plenty of reason to worry. The charges against Lai, Chow, and the others have not been dismissed. As of now, they face the prospect of being tried in a system from which the head prosecutor recently resigned, citing a lack of transparency about prosecutions under Beijing’s new national-security law. Still worse, there exists a possibility that they could be extradited to the mainland and tried there. “[Lai] has said that he will not leave Hong Kong,” Jerome Cohen, an expert on Chinese law at NYU’s law school, writes in an email to National Review. “But can he be sure? If transferred for detention, interrogation and trial on the Mainland under the [national-security law], he will leave [Hong Kong] against his will.”
Can the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement still cling to hope? Wong thinks so. On Wednesday, he penned an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that it was premature to eulogize the movement. The Chinese Communist Party’s crackdown has perhaps irreversibly harmed the cause, and any chance of electing pro-democracy legislators to the council has gone up in smoke. But, Wong wrote, “Hong Kong’s spirit of resistance is unflagging.”
Wong seems to think that the movement will always find new ways to resist. Although the city’s authorities are clearly attempting to dissuade Lai from his journalistic efforts to target CCP rule, the ultimate impact of his arrest Monday was to send the stock of Next Digital, his company, soaring; as Wong noted, it increased 1,200 percent in just two days.
Mark Simon, a senior executive at Next Digital, says that his company’s response to the arrest of Lai and another executive was to triple Apple Daily’s usual print run. The next day, a record 500,000 copies of the paper were sold, and Simon points to this as evidence that the CCP simply misunderstands how a modern city such as Hong Kong functions. “In an economy like Hong Kong, in a modern economy, information is what everything flows around. It’s just all around us all the time,” he says. “The moment you shut that down, the moment you start altering that, then you really alter everything. It’s all over.”
Still, there is a reason Wong felt the need to reiterate that his movement will keep fighting. International response to Beijing’s crackdown has lagged, and although the United States has imposed some sanctions measures, there remains a lot more that Western democracies can do to support the cause of Hong Kong democracy.
The most recent round of sanctions, issued last week, targets eleven Hong Kong and CCP officials for their involvement in implementing the national-security law. Despite what Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam claims, the sanctions are expected to have a concrete effect — for one, they will make it harder for Lam to finance her son’s Harvard education and prevent her from advertising on Facebook. The Trump administration can, however, apply more pressure on the city’s authorities and CCP officials by continuing to issue sanctions targeted at specific individuals, and, eventually, by going after the banks that do business with them.
Will these measures stop Beijing’s crackdown? Probably not, but the U.S. and other Western democracies can still extract a price for it — if they choose to act in support of Hong Kong’s democrats. And either way, the pro-democracy movement will inevitably keep up the fight outside Hong Kong and China. “Xi Jinping’s gift to the world is all the Chinese that want to leave and get away,” Simon says. “But also his gift to the world is going to be the Hong Kong people, because they’re leaving [too].”