Only Congress can tame Beijing’s bloody instincts

Hong Kong’s struggle for freedom is inspirational. But outsiders must help by challenging police violence

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Protestors attempt to flee Hong Kong Polytechnic University after riot police fire tear gas (©ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images)

Who could have predicted that the people of Hong Kong, that most money-minded of all the cities, would one day risk it all in an epic fight for freedom? To paraphrase Lenin: “Probe with a bayonet. Meet steel, stop. Meet mush, advance.” Flesh and blood are mush, no matter how large the crowd. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under both Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping was accustomed to killing tens of millions. No one should doubt that their successor, Xi Jinping, is as brutal and ruthless.

But this drama has more than two actors. The most consequential power is still the United States. President Trump, if he continues to follow his commendable instincts on trade confrontation with China, escalating tariffs and sanctions, will win against Xi. The president doesn’t need a deal. Xi does, because it is the Chinese economy that is wobbling. True, myopic businessmen in the upper echelon of his administration, working against American values and businesses’ long-term interests, have weakened the US position. But Congress is more than capable of providing the steel that stops Xi’s bayonet.

In October and November, the US Congress overwhelmingly  backed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which aims to give the US government a battery of weapons to deter Beijing from carrying out a large-scale massacre in the territory. Both the House of Representatives and Senate passed the Bill unanimously, and the reconciled version passed the House by 417 to 1. As Senator Marco Rubio, a principal sponsor of the Bill, tweeted: Congress has spoken by a cumulative vote of 517 to 1.

On November 28, Trump signed the bill into law.

Xi is not and was never as powerful as he has been portrayed in the press and by academic Sinologists—he has many opponents among the PRC’s elite, who constitute another group of actors beyond his control. A trove of leaked internal government documents outlining specific methods of repression against  Xinjiang’s Muslim minorities points to his inadequacy in total control:  Xi commands the propaganda apparatus. He presides over the military, the main guarantor of power for the regime—in line with Mao’s dictum that “power comes from the barrel of a gun”—but does not seem confident of its loyalty; and coups are also not unknown in CCP history. Xi has been agile and clever in preventing the various military factions from coalescing against him, but he does not command the loyalty of the military as Mao and Deng did. Vice President Wang Qishan, Zeng Qinghong, ex-President Hu Jintao and other princelings partially or wholly control other levers of power. Rumours of challenges and assassination attempts are rife.

The PRC elite needs Hong Kong. Many party princelings stash their corrupt money there, more safely than at home. Shanghai has not replaced Hong Kong, precisely because the PRC’s commercial capital lacks the rule of law. Official data show that 70 per cent of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into China in 2017 was from Hong Kong, up from 40 per cent in 1997. How much of that is really Hong Kong money is unclear, but the territory’s trusted legal system means it remains a vital conduit. In short, the elite would object if Xi were to jeopardise the benefits they derive from Hong Kong.

The third factor is Britain. While Hong Kong was a British Dependent Territory, its people went about their everyday lives, focused on making money, and with scant interest in politics because they knew that London protected the rule of law. Hong Kong thrived in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s—decades when millions were dying from starvation and repression across the border. This disproves the sadly persistent argument that CCP brutality was necessary to drag the Chinese people out of poverty and backwardness. On the contrary it was Communist brutality that rendered China uncivilised, and its people poor. It was only when the Party loosened its tyrannical grip a little in the 1980s that the Chinese people began to benefit.

Hong Kong is now the frontline in a battle for the rule of law against the challenge of China’s one-party state. This battlefield is global and reaches into cultural, athletic, educational, technological and multilateral institutions as Beijing seeks to flex its muscles. Hong Kongers are putting up the most impressive resistance.

Businesses are the most obvious and immediate beneficiaries of the rule of law, because without it, they are constantly forced to appease (and bribe) tyrannical power. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: Feeding the crocodiles in the hope that they will eat you last just means that you will ultimately be eaten by bigger and stronger crocodiles. Yet some businesses are short-sightedly protecting their short-term interests at the expense of everyone else’s interests. It is in all democracies’ interest that the rules-based international order is protected, because if we lose on principles, we are defeated at the outset. Helping Hong Kong before the CCP tyranny gets to the rest of us is therefore an act of self-preservation.

More than eight months after the first demonstration on March 31, the people of Hong Kong are still resisting. But they are facing an immediate menace. The officially sanctioned and escalating violence of the Hong Kong police and CCP-affiliated triad gangs are calibrated to terrorise the protestors without provoking an international response.

Police confirm that a total of 4,491 people have been arrested, the youngest aged 11, and the oldest 80.  Most devastating, but barely noted by media and NGOs, is that some of the arrested are being put on trains and buses to points unknown. 

But we are now at a new phase. Beijing announced on October 31, at the end of a four-day meeting of the CCP’s Central Committee which determines the policy directions of the party-state, that it would introduce new steps to “safeguard national security” in Hong Kong, a coded term for large-scale suppression. The extreme police violence now targeting Hong Kong’s universities is the result, leaving the Chinese University and the Polytechnic University looking like war zones. 

This is where the international community can play a critical role—by initiating an international inquiry into brutality by the territory’s police force. The Chinese regime is not only a challenge to all other states, but it is also a worldwide menace to democratic values. It makes sense for democracies to join this effort and so deter the CCP from its worst abuses and practices.

Jimmy Lai, one of the few Hong Kong businessmen on the side of the Hong Kong people, recently told CBS’s 60 Minutes: “What we are fighting for is the first battle of the new Cold War.” Other commentators have compared the territory to Berlin during the old Cold War. A more apt comparison might be Vienna during the 1930s, where the city’s elite supported the Nazi tyranny while democracies prevaricated on whether to confront Hitler.

Not enough people in the policy community have recognised that the PRC is not just a “strategic competitor,” but a mortal enemy of democracy. The only way that democracy can survive is if we recognise our enemy for what it is—the CCP party-state is the worst form of tyranny devised by man, and it will annihilate democracy if it can.

At least 2.9 million people—70 per cent of eligible voters—turned out for last month’s local District Council election, resulting in a resounding victory for pro-democracy parties and a brutal rebuff for Beijing. The people of Hong Kong have taken a principled stand against this tyranny.  The rest of the world should follow, while we still can.

 


Neighbouring sounds

What is the hour of the day
when most people are awake?
Awake to the sounds of cars honking,
being directed to other routes.
Someone smashed three glass doors,
while in the distant world
forest trees, not trash cans, are burning.
Waves carrying naked, dead bodies
to the shore. But they don’t make a sound.

The hour when people
are woken up to the city anthem played
in various instruments, and nobody
is deprived of her triumphant music.
Bullets travel at speeds greater
than the speed of sound—a sonic boom reverberates.
Some muted voices ride into the night,
never to resurface as before.

There are cycles of wakefulness
around the world. The ticking of this clock
descends upon us. Hongkongers
are awake, awake, awake.

              Tammy Lai-ming Ho