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Nathan Law’s Warning

Hong Kong exile pro-democracy activist Nathan Law holds a rally with other activist groups during China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit in Berlin, Germany, September 1, 2020. (Michele Tantussi/Reuters)

Few understand the Chinese Communist Party’s global threat to democracy better than Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists.

During a panel hosted by Florida International University and the McCain Institute earlier this month, Nathan Law, a key figure in the movement who fled his home city to continue his advocacy from London last year, described the fight in no uncertain terms.

Law faults leaders for neglecting to see the fight for democracy in global terms. “We see the fight for democracy not as a global problem, not as an issue of climate emergency that needs collaboration around the world,” he said. “It gives room for the authoritarian regimes to disguise themselves in the name of sovereignty, in the name of internal affairs. … The authoritarian regimes are protecting each other, shielding each other, and expanding the authoritarianism beyond borders.”

He raises an important point. In many quarters, that climate change is an international emergency has become practically unquestionable. Meanwhile, there’s recently been more discussion about China’s challenge to global norms and human rights, a line that President Biden and a number of officials in his administration have rightfully taken up, and a bipartisan awakening to the threat.

Still, the way in which officials discuss it can sometimes be oblique. This — China’s bid to reshape the international order to ratify its authoritarian policies at home — is nothing short of an international emergency. The regime has all but squelched democratic rule in Hong Kong and worked to eradicate an entire ethnic group in China’s West. By the time 2021 is through, it might have started a war over Taiwan. Countering the CCP’s global ambitions is more than a conventional foreign policy challenge.

It’s those who, like Law, have stared this threat in the face who understand it with bitter clarity. They have skin in the game.

The CCP’s efforts to extend the reach of its authoritarian model — not primarily to make the world more like China, but to neutralize any perceived threats to the Party’s rule — is the primary reason that this is an international crisis and not just another foreign policy challenge to be managed with expressions of concern. It stands a chance of permanently altering democratic practices, as China and other authoritarian regimes target dissidents and religious and ethnic minorities in faraway lands, including in democracies.

In fact, this is already happening. In the wake of the Hong Kong national-security law, universities in Western countries have been forced to adapt to the reality that the Chinese authorities could well prosecute students for remarks made in the classroom (virtual and physical) while on foreign soil. Meanwhile, prospective foreign visitors to China should probably reevaluate their travel plans, lest they become the latest foreigners imprisoned on bogus charges. Those who have made derogatory comments about the regime’s actions in Hong Kong, doubly so. And multinational corporations that inadvertently take a position on China’s human-rights abuses have been cowed into accepting Beijing’s diktats (Law was responding to a question about the NBA’s dealings with China when he made his comments about the authoritarian emergency).

Law gets all of this. Unless the world’s democracies approach the Party’s authoritarian encroachments as an ideological competition with the Communist regime, they won’t emerge from the current crisis undamaged.

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