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By Dr. Alexander Görlach, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs

The aim is for Hong Kong to be like every other city in China: under the complete control of the Communist Party. Since the return of the former crown colony to the People’s Republic, the autonomous metropolis and hub of commerce has been a thorn in Beijing’s side. China may have signed binding agreements by which it promised not to infringe on the city’s independence until 2047. But the nomenklatura has little interest in such agreements. When twelve advocates for Hong Kong’s autonomy were detained by police on Sunday for participating in pro-democracy demonstrations last summer, a Foreign Ministry spokesman announced that China had the final say and Hong Kong’s status was relative. Among those arrested was the 81-year-old lawyer Martin Lee, who before the handover had helped write Hong Kong’s constitution, the Basic Law. For his contribution, the people of Hong Kong refer to him with respect and affection as the “father of democracy.” 


With these latest attempts at intimidation, Beijing hopes to prevent a fiasco in the upcoming elections for the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s city parliament. In regional elections last November, the democratic camp won 17 of the 18 districts, a slap in the face for Beijing. This was payback from the city’s residents to President Xi Jinping and his puppet Carrie Lam for attempting to use a purported extradition law to undermine Hong Kong’s legal independence. According to the law, anyone arrested in the autonomous territory could have been transferred for trial to the People’s Republic, where procedures associated with the rule of law do not exist as such. In the largest demonstration against the extradition law, around two million of the city’s 7.5 million inhabitants took to the streets. After months of tactical maneuvering, Carrie Lam ultimately relented, entailing a severe loss of face.


There had already been similar demonstrations in the port city in 2003, just a few years after the handover. At the time, a proposed “security law” envisioned imprisoning dissidents for conspiracy or treason. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets wearing black T-shirts and carrying umbrellas to protect themselves from the July sun. In the demonstrations against the extradition law, countless thousands again wore black, a sad reminder of the beginning of the city’s pro-democracy movement. Umbrellas had also played a role in protests against China in 2014: To protect themselves against the tear gas of the police, the people of Hong Kong opened their umbrellas, and the Umbrella Movement was born. 


The People’s Republic had originally agreed to permit democratic elections beginning in 2007. But nothing ever came of it. Instead, Beijing demanded that any potential candidate in the election first had be scrutinized and approved by the Communist Party. That sent hundreds of thousands of protesters to the streets. For this year’s vote, Beijing is again expected to do everything it can to silence unwelcome candidates and prevent their election. 


In actual fact, China had committed to respect Hong Kong’s independence, as the Basic Law emphasized. But yet again, the sad example of the once proud metropolis shows that under the Communist Party, and especially under its current General Secretary Xi Jinping, no deviation from the norm it establishes will be tolerated. Mr. Xi abruptly ended the path toward a more open society his predecessors had charted and issued a call for battle against the democracies in Hong Kong and Taiwan. While Beijing regards the island as its territory, Taiwan is de facto a separate state with its own government, foreign relations, passport, currency and military. For both Hong Kong and Taiwan, the reformer Deng Xiaoping had formulated the principle “one country, two systems” to promote reunification with the People’s Republic. 


But in both places, “one country, two systems” is over. Most recently, Mr. Xi even turned the formula into a war cry when he issued the threat toward Taiwan that he would annex the island by military force if it refused to submit. On China’s periphery, it is becoming apparent that wherever people have a choice between liberal democracy based on the rule of law and Chinese authoritarianism – which Mr. Xi calls “socialism with Chinese characteristics” – they choose democracy. All free and democratic nations that regard themselves as friends and allies of Hong Kong and Taiwan must see this as a mandate to support them in their struggle against the People’s Republic.


This is all the more true now that it has become clear that China is pursuing a policy of global expansion with the aim of making opponents economically dependent and consequently being able to silence them whenever it wants. At the same time, Mr. Xi is pursuing the strategy of turning the People’s Republic into the Asian hegemon. Both in Hong Kong and Taiwan as well as in Tibet and the province of Xinjiang, inhabited by Uighur Muslims, his actions leaves no doubt that he dreams of an ethnic Han dominance that entails the eradication of other cultures. According to papers leaked to the New York Times, Beijing’s henchmen are instructed to show “no mercy” towards the Uighurs. Hong Kong’s fate will therefore determine that of the free world. If Hong Kong falls, China’s appetite for Taiwan will increase. If both these bastions of democracy were to fall, Mr. Xi would come dangerously close to his dream of China as a global superpower. That would be an unwelcome development for anyone in the free world. 


Alexander Görlach is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York. During the 2017-18 academic year, he was a visiting scholar in Hong Kong and Taiwan. His book “Flashpoint Hong Kong: Why the Future of the Free World Will Be Decided in China” will be published this fall by Hoffmann & Campe.