China snuffs out a beacon of freedom, a warning to the world.
China’s decision to impose its national-security law on Hong Kong is a seismic event that goes well beyond the sad fate of its 7.5 million people. The illegal takeover shows that Beijing’s Communist rulers are willing to violate their international commitments with impunity as they spread their authoritarian model.
We say this with regret because we were among those who hoped, amid China’s reform era that began in the 1980s, that the Middle Kingdom could be drawn into a world of peaceful global norms. Hong Kong, a showcase of the prosperity that economic freedom and the rule of law can produce, was a lesson for Beijing to learn from.
Now those hopes are crushed, as China’s Communist legislature imposed the national-security law that ends Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” governance and subverts the rights promised under the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984. Beijing promised to preserve Hong Kong’s legal autonomy and freedom of speech, assembly, the press and other liberties. The 7.5 million now subject to this sweeping legislation weren’t even permitted to read the text until it passed.
In a statement Tuesday, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam claimed that the national-security law “only targets an extremely small minority of offenders while the life and property as well as various legitimate basic rights and freedoms enjoyed by the overwhelming majority of citizens will be protected.”
The Hong Kong people clearly don’t believe her because thousands took to the streets Wednesday to protest, despite the personal risks under the new law. More than 300 were arrested, including several under the new security law.
The legislation also outlaws secessionism, subversion, “terrorist activities” and “collusion” with foreign forces, all defined so broadly that nearly anything but unconditional obedience to Beijing may be deemed illegal. It also forbids “provoking by unlawful means hatred among Hong Kong residents towards the Central People’s Government or the Government of the Region, which is likely to cause serious consequences.” The maximum punishment is life in prison.
The obvious targets include prominent figures like democracy advocates Martin Lee, Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, and publisher Jimmy Lai. But Beijing also makes clear that anyone who participates in protests or otherwise speaks out against the Communist Party could face charges. A Hong Konger who advocates for democracy at a U.S. university or meets with Members of Congress runs the risk of arrest upon return.
The law also allows authorities to go after foreigners, including for speech or activities that take place outside Hong Kong. Journalists, human-rights activists and businessmen now visit or work in the city at their peril.
The law doesn’t explicitly say if the accused can be extradited to the mainland. But that is meaningless since the measure effectively brings mainland justice to Hong Kong. Security forces who answer to Beijing will collect intelligence and surveil suspects. Beijing chooses which judges can hear national-security cases and claims exclusive authority to interpret the new law.
All of this is also ominous for Taiwan, whose free people will be even less likely to trust Beijing’s assurances after watching Hong Kong’s fate. Taiwan’s foreign minister condemned the new security law, and some of Hong Kong's people may seek refuge on the island. A Beijing mouthpiece warned about a Taiwanese “black hand” in Hong Kong affairs, and a Chinese military intervention can’t be ruled out.
The British, to their credit, have responded to all of this by offering some three million Hong Kongers the right to reside in the U.K. on a path to citizenship. The U.S. should do the same, and bipartisan bills in Congress are moving to offer refugee status to some Hong Kongers. President Trump should welcome these talented freedom lovers with open arms in what promises to be a long competition between democracy and Chinese Communism.
For now, however, a beacon of freedom has been extinguished, and the world should learn that it can’t trust Beijing’s promises.