Yesterday I wrote about the arrest of prominent pro-democracy publisher Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong. Lai publishes Apple Daily which is a newspaper that routinely supports protesters and is critical of the CCP. He was arrested at his home and then 200 police officers entered his newspaper’s offices and searched for evidence of seditious behavior under the country’s new national security law. Today the NY Times published an editorial which recounts what happened and somehow manages not to criticize President Trump’s reaction:
Early on Monday, the police in Hong Kong arrested Jimmy Lai, founder of the popular tabloid Apple Daily, on charges of collusion with a foreign country, one of the vaguely defined crimes under the anti-sedition law adopted this spring by Beijing. It was the latest and clearest signal that China intends to make full use of that sweeping new legislation to stifle free expression and undermine Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement…
What will happen next to the 71-year-old tycoon, a native of mainland China who made his fortune in apparel, is hard to predict. The anti-sedition law is overarching both in the definition of crimes and in its scope, with penalties as severe as life in prison for crimes such as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. It applies to Hong Kong residents and nonresidents alike, as well as Hong Kongers living abroad. And it allows for certain cases to be tried behind closed doors in mainland China, where courts are obedient to the ruling party…
On Friday, after pro-democracy candidates were disqualified from running for the legislative council, the Trump administration went further and ordered sanctions against 11 Hong Kong officials, including Carrie Lam, the chief executive, effectively lumping them together with Communist officials on the mainland. China promptly retaliated on Monday by sanctioning 11 Americans, including Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. The United States also joined with Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand in a sharp statement charging that disqualifying candidates and postponing elections “undermined the democratic process that has been fundamental to Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity.”
It is dubious that such sanctions and statements can have much effect, given that the officials sanctioned are not likely to travel in one or the other direction due to the pandemic and probably have few assets that the other side can freeze. Given Mr. Xi’s mind-set and China’s growing economic and military might, it is hard to imagine what actions the United States or its allies could do to help the brave people of Hong Kong.
That note of impotence gets repeated in the final paragraph: “For now there is not much more the world can do.”
That’s not really true of course. There is a lot the world could do. For instance, we could announce that instead of sanctions on a few leaders we are pulling business out of China for good. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be the U.S. government that acts. Individual businesses could take the lead. If Apple said it was leaving China that might get the CCP’s attention but are people ready to start paying $2,500+ for an iphone? At the moment it seems the answer is no.
Saying there’s not much we can do is a cop out. Because ultimately there’s never anything we can do when an authoritarian communist state is intent on taking more territory. Ultimately the only thing you can ever do in this situation is say no and, if necessary, back it up.
We’re not willing to do that for Hong Kong and we may come to regret that because this probably isn’t the last scene of this particular drama. What will we do when China does the same thing to Taiwan? Where are we actually willing to draw the line? The only thing that’s clear at this moment is that the answer is ‘Not now.’ And just like that, the relative freedom of 7.5 million people is a thing of the past. Freedom is losing not because it can’t act but because it won’t.