April 16 was a dark day for Hong Kong — a city that has seen many dark days in recent years, and whose days are getting darker. A court handed down sentences for nine advocates of democracy. What were they sentenced for? Well, advocating democracy.
The U.S. secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, issued a statement condemning the sentencing. He said that “Beijing and Hong Kong authorities are targeting Hong Kongers for doing nothing more than exercising protected rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of speech.”
Obviously, the Chinese government fears democracy. Eight of the nine people just sentenced have, at one time or another, been democratically elected to Hong Kong’s legislature. And the ninth — Jimmy Lai, about whom more in a moment — is an ardent and brave supporter of democracy.
Martin Lee, one of the nine, has long been known as “the father of democracy” in Hong Kong. Other democrats, worldwide, have been in awe of him since the 1980s. Lee founded the first democratic party in the city, the United Democrats of Hong Kong. Now 82, he was arrested last year for taking part in a protest. He made a poignant statement: “Over the months and years, I’ve felt bad to see so many outstanding youngsters being arrested and prosecuted, but I was not charged. Now I’ve finally become a defendant. I feel proud that I have a chance to walk this path of democracy together with them.”
On Friday, the court sentenced Lee to eleven months, suspended. Other senior statesmen had their sentences suspended too. But Lee Cheuk-yan, 64, is one of the defendants who did not receive such a sentence. He is to spend a year and a half in prison. One of the things he is known for is organizing an annual vigil to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre — an event that the authorities wish to airbrush out.
As we have seen, “mainland justice is being imported into Hong Kong.” That’s the way Ellen Bork put it in a podcast with National Review’s Jay Nordlinger on Friday. With other American advocates of democracy, she has formed the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong.
Jimmy Lai is 72. He is the entrepreneur who started out dirt-poor and rose to the heights of business. On his journey, he discovered Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, becoming a staunch classical liberal. (Indeed, he has a bust of Hayek in the lobby of his media-group headquarters.) Lai is probably the most famous resident of Hong Kong. If you can hound and imprison him, you can hound and imprison anybody.
The court sentenced Lai to 14 months in prison — yet he faces more charges under the new and sinister “national security” law. He could be sentenced to life in prison.
Another member of that Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong is Perry Link, the China scholar who has long lent a helping hand to democrats (and has been banned from China for his troubles). He, too, participated in the aforementioned podcast, with Ellen Bork. He pointed out that Jimmy Lai had been leading a very comfortable life and could easily have left Hong Kong and put his feet up elsewhere. But he decided to stay and take a stand, and has now been deprived of his freedom.
A report in the Washington Post included an apt phrase: The Chinese government is turning Hong Kong into a city “that resembles any other in China.” The government had promised “one country, two systems,” for 50 years — i.e., until 2047. But the government would not tolerate a distinct and democratic Hong Kong for even 25. Beijing is increasingly intolerant of Taiwan, too. Both of those places — Hong Kong and Taiwan — have been democratic outposts of China, setting a “bad” example for the billion Chinese on the mainland.
Xi Jinping, the current Chinese No. 1, has a clear goal — a legacy project, if you will: to “unify” China, which is to say, to bring Hong Kong and Taiwan — and Uyghurs and others — to heel.
What can the United States and other democratic governments do? People speak of “standing with.” Secretary Blinken, in his statement, said, “We will continue to stand with Hong Kongers as they respond to Beijing’s assault on [promised] freedoms and autonomy, and we will not stop calling for the release of those detained or imprisoned for exercising their fundamental freedoms.”
“Calling for” is important. Moral support is a great and necessary part of “standing with.” The United States did this, to varying degrees, throughout the Cold War. But what else? A range of things. The United States and the rest of the Free World must confront China over its conduct in general — Hong Kong, the Uyghurs, Taiwan, etc.
Going to the Beijing Olympics in 2022 should be out of the question. Business as usual — commercial relations, diplomatic niceties — should be reconsidered. We should continue to impose sanctions on individual human-rights abusers: asset freezes, visa denials. People in China should know that we are on their side, not the side of their rulers or persecutors. U.S. officials often vexed the Kremlin with human-rights complaints — with human-rights “spotlighting.” The same can be done now.
“Hong Kong is not just Hong Kong on the world stage,” said Perry Link on Friday. “This is a frontier of a larger confrontation” — between democracy and dictatorship, freedom and unfreedom. “This thriving, energetic, free city is being taken over by an autocratic government and squelched. That’s a big fact wherever in the world it happens.”
There were moving scenes in that courtroom, as Hong Kong democracy leaders were sentenced to prison. “Stay strong!” members of the audience cried out, as the prisoners were being led away. That is what the rest of us should do too, in the various ways we can: stay strong.