For the first time in the 30 years since the Chinese Communist regime massacred thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square, the government has backed down in the face of popular opposition. On June 15, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, after consultations with her managers from the mainland, announced that legislation that would permit the extradition of Hong Kongers and anyone who happens to be in Hong Kong and whom Beijing deems a “suspect” to mainland courts would be “suspended.” She blamed “poor communication” about the bill for massive protests that have been met with increasing police violence.
Protests against Beijing’s threat to Hong Kong’s rule of law drew one million people—one in seven residents—who bucked a global tendency to appease China’s land-grabs, its exploitation and coercion of weak and poor nations, its subversion of universal human rights principles in international institutions, and its horrific oppression of religious minorities and any who deviate from its rigid control.
The protests will not stop now, or there. Human rights and democracy campaigners insist that mere suspension of the legislation leaves what Democratic Party leader Emily Lau called “a sword hanging over our heads.” They insist that the legislation must be withdrawn, and on June 16 more than 1.5 million—one in five Hong Kong residents—were again on the streets demanding Lam’s resignation and the release of arrested students. They have tasted victory, and they want further dissociation and protection from the mainland dictatorship. Yet not only Hong Kongers but all who dream of a free and democratic China must seize this moment to push through the opening it has created.
The U.S. Congress and Administration need to be aware that protests against the proposed extradition law have been substantially different from those in past years, in which ordinary Hong Kongers have demanded more political rights. The recent protests are rather those of people with their back against the wall, determined to hold on to laws that protect their right to justice.
This conflict is not and will not be confined to Hong Kong. Crucially, the new protests have drawn in members of the Hong Kong-based mainland elite. It has thus opened a fissure among its members, people who have settled in Hong Kong and obtained residency there over the past 20 years. They would be in particular danger if this legislation were to pass: They would be subject to the risk of being extradited back to the mainland if they, their family members, or their “patrons” in China happened to lose out in Communist Party power struggles, or if they had issues, political or economic, with Beijing in the first place. The arbitrariness of China’s anti-corruption campaign, and the law enforcement system, would make them most vulnerable under the proposed extradition law. Indeed, the mainland-Hong Kong elite have obtained residency there largely for protection from this potential threat.
Many, therefore, including those with ties even to powerful military families, have supported the anti-extradition bill protests. And because of their intertwined familial, economic, and political ties, the fissure extends to the Beijing ruling elite itself, for they too fear arbitrary justice in mainland courts. The protests have sparked doubts among leading Chinese who harbor ambitions for themselves and for their children to live in a society that respects individual freedom, a society where ritualized ideological automatism does not pollute China’s deep cultural and philosophical traditions. There has been support for the protests even within the dominant pro-Beijing bloc in the Legislative Council.
The retreat in Hong Kong is Chinese ruler Xi Jinping’s worst nightmare come true: It has demonstrated to all that the regime will back down in the face of massive, peaceful civil protests. The protests, if they maintain sufficient scale and momentum and last long enough, have the potential to be a game changer in the politics in Beijing.
Only terror will stop them, and then only temporarily.
Thirty years ago, confronted with massive popular demands for freedom, Chinese rulers opted for a bloody hard line, following debates that have recently been exposed for the first time.1 Then, as the documents show, they blamed the protests at Tiananmen on foreign interference and their own relaxation of revolutionary discipline. The ambivalent reaction of the Chinese authorities back then is further evidence of a fissure penetrating the ruling class and its members’ thinking. The People’s Daily reflexively followed the Tiananmen template, attributing the dispute to “anti-China lackeys.” But then on June 15, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that the decision to suspend the extradition law signaled a determination to “listen more widely to the views of the community,” supporting the “rights and freedoms” of Hong Kongers.
This same official had earlier demanded that American diplomats “stop all interference in Hong Kong’s affairs,” since Hong Kong is “purely the internal affair of China.” Except that it isn’t. Given China’s massive influence in the world, what is happening in Hong Kong palpably affects people everywhere—people who would be better off if China treated its own citizens, and those of other lands, with respect. Chinese officials have warned about threats to “stability” in Hong Kong, but it is their own policies that have caused instability. Indeed, Xi’s rule is a reversion to an approach to social control based on force, but its verticality makes it vulnerable. As the Helsinki Accords of 1975 affirmed, threats to human rights are threats to security.
Now, at this turning point in Chinese and Hong Kong politics, the United States can help those seeking democracy and freedom. The U.S. Congress and parliaments of other democracies can deny entry visas and impose other sanctions on Hong Kong legislators who do not oppose police violence, and on those who refuse to permanently withdraw the offending legislation.
The people of Hong Kong have risen up, not only for their own freedoms, but for ours as well. Let us meet their courage with firm and principled support.
1Zuihou de mimi: Zhonggong shisanjie sizhong quanhui “liusi” jielun wengao (The Last Secret: The Final Documents from the June Fourth Crackdown) (New Century Press, 2019). See Andrew J. Nathan, “The New Tiananmen Papers,” Foreign Affairs (July 2019).