Beijing’s Ruler versus Hong Kong’s Heroes

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Simultaneous visits to Washington by the Chinese leader and three Hong Kong democracy activists offer the United States a chance to show the world where it stands.

joshua wong benny tai martin lee

Chinese president Xi Jinping is being honored with a state visit to Washington at the same time that Hong Kong’s leading democracy advocates—Martin Lee, Benny Tai, and 18-year-old Joshua Wong—are visiting the city and presenting a vision for the future that is radically different from Xi’s.

The contrast highlights what is at stake for China—and for the United States. Xi’s tenure since 2012 has seen the most power concentrated in one man since Deng Xiaoping, and the most ideologically driven rule since Mao Zedong. An ongoing crackdown on corruption is skewed toward purging Xi’s rivals. And the leadership’s repressive bent includes a fierce determination to curtail self-rule and direct elections in Hong Kong.

Xi’s state visit illustrates how Beijing demands and receives global respect despite its status as the world’s most pernicious exemplar of authoritarian rule. The vaunted China model promises economic growth without freedom, development without openness. But the recent stock-market crash suggests that this economic powerhouse might be a paper tiger, not least because of its lack of transparency and its willingness to deceive itself about its own performance. The deadly explosions in Tianjin—and the censorship efforts surrounding them—are reminders of the costs and disregard for human life underpinning the Chinese Communist Party’s model for governance.

During the summer, the government launched a sweeping crackdown on lawyers who dared to defend the basic rights actually guaranteed by Chinese law. Now China is rolling back even that artifice of rights on paper by fashioning harsh national security legislation as a means to muzzle civil society.

Lee, Tai, and Wong—three generations of voices for democracy—represent an alternative model. Martin Lee, the founder and former leader of the Democratic Party, has championed civil liberties and universal suffrage since before the British returned Hong Kong to China. Benny Tai, Lee’s junior law partner and now a professor, conceived of the movement to occupy Hong Kong’s Central district to protest the continued denial of direct elections for the city’s chief executive. A year ago, Tai’s student Joshua Wong mobilized the sea of canary yellow umbrellas in the hands of tens of thousands of protesters, many of them also students.

Lee, Tai, and Wong have come to the United States to speak up for the right of all citizens to choose their leaders and shape their future.

The Umbrella Movement’s leaders represent the hundreds of millions of people whose civil liberties are receding in many places around the world. In this case, not only hasn’t Hong Kong injected more freedom into China, but China has circumscribed freedom in Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, the Chinese government’s larger struggle against democracy has taken on extra intensity. Authorities sought to add nationalistic content to school curricula, the Hong Kong press has often succumbed to self-censorship in its coverage of Chinese rule, and journalists increasingly face violent physical attacks. Pro-Beijing front organizations harass peaceful political and religious protesters. And local authorities, on orders from Beijing, scotched the planned shift to direct elections of Hong Kong’s chief executive.

This story is emblematic in two ways: First, the squeeze on civil society in Hong Kong fits a worldwide pattern. China has arguably written the playbook, including through its conversion of social media into tools of surveillance and propaganda. Other governments—from Venezuela to Rwanda—have adopted similar tactics. One sees not just dictatorships but also backtracking democracies mounting assaults on civil society, freedom of expression, and minority rights—even in Europe’s neighborhood, such as in Turkey and Hungary.

Second, Hong Kong’s democrats show how this recession of freedom can and will be reversed. Civil society is not limited to formally constituted NGOs. It is also made up of dynamic, informal, nonviolent movements—often led by youth who refuse to accept the illiberal order under which they live as the way it will always be. Joshua Wong, as a mere teenager, rallied thousands to demand change.

These two lessons are precisely why Freedom House chose to invite and bring the trio to the United States—as the featured guests at the first event commemorating the organization’s 75th anniversary.

The ultimate tide of history lies not with corrupt oppressors but with brave civic activists like those in Hong Kong. However, after nine straight years of global declines in political rights and civil liberties, they need the vocal and active support of the United States, in concert with other leading democracies. Such a posture will serve prosperity and peace as much as it will pluralism and principle.

The visitors to Washington offer the United States a chance to start getting it right, after being too silent about troubling trends in China and Hong Kong. The “honor” Xi deserves is to be candidly challenged about his government’s abysmal human rights record and the example it sets for the world. All the United States needs do is to emulate Lee, Tai, and Wong—and speak truth to power.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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