China tips its hand by how it treats Hong Kong
“We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
Those were the words of Benjamin Franklin, urging his fellow Americans in the 13 colonies to stay united, in the face of Great Britain’s enormous power and history of skillful exercise thereof.
Franklin was a successful newspaper publisher, among many accomplishments. His inspiring words come to mind given China’s ruthless efforts to target and suppress the media.
On Aug. 10, police arrested influential entrepreneur Lai Chee-Ying (known by the name Jimmy Lai). He founded the popular Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily and the media company Next Digital.
Earlier, he created the clothing company Giordano. Beijing targeted and effectively forced this company out of business because of his active support for Hong Kong freedom movements, especially the Democratic Party.
Police seized Lai at his home, then took him to his newsroom in handcuffs, a shocking display of official brutality involving 200 officers. Simultaneously, authorities arrested others.
This heavy-handed action is reminiscent of the violent attacks on free expression that characterized the Nazi Party in Germany. Soviet Communists and contemporary Russian autocrats tend to be more bureaucratic and cautious in their efforts at repression.
However, this is not Germany in the 1930s or even the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Twentieth-century totalitarians did not have to deal with today’s truly pervasive media. Literally, anyone with a cellphone can record and disseminate events.
Almost immediately, witnesses transmitted the shocking imagery of Lai in handcuffs worldwide. Pointed editorial commentaries accompanied visual imagery.
The employees of Lai’s publications were not intimidated, quite the reverse. As police rifled through desks and files, and seized more than 30 crates of documents, the entire unfolding disgusting behavior became public on Facebook Live.
This is stark evidence of Beijing’s renewed repression in Hong Kong. In late June, China made public a harsh new national security law. The law was moved through the rubber-stamp national legislature and signed in secrecy.
The United States opposes this despicable, disturbing campaign. On May 29, Washington announced cessation of favored trade status for Hong Kong.
In July 2019, Lai visited the United States. In Washington, he met with Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The government of Britain has announced Hong Kong residents holding British passports and their dependents can seek citizenship. The British colony became a “semiautonomous administrative region” of China in 1997. Beijing now presses to remove that freedom.
Governments and others should publicize and penalize corporate enablers of China. Last year, Google announced termination of Project Dragonfly, a China censorship tool, after tremendous criticism, including from within the powerful corporation. Other U.S. companies, including Cisco Systems and Microsoft, have helped Beijing implement censorship and control.
In terms of economic, geographic and population size, vastly larger China dwarfs both Hong Kong and Taiwan. Yet economic realities nonetheless provide opportunities for leverage on Beijing.
U.S. government leaders must reinforce current actions with a sustained strategy to limit and restrain China’s expansion. This should include naval and air maneuvers, closer Taiwan ties, reinforcing alliance with Japan, and noncommercial exchanges with Hong Kong,
Japan’s expanding military capabilities, including a new advanced technology warship, are today extremely positive developments for the alliance with the U.S. and Pacific security more generally. We should encourage closer ties with this important ally across the board.
Beijing has backed off from bullying before. Today, global commercial as well as political tides are moving in the direction of freedom.
Ben Franklin would be pleased, but only if we Americans and others live up to his example.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.”