Hong Kong’s fight ours, too

National Post (National Edition) - - Front Page - AN­DREW COYNE

A sick­en­ing pall of in­evitabil­ity hangs over the protests in Hong Kong, now in their tenth week. Nei­ther side can af­ford to back down – the pro­test­ers, be­cause their way of life, in­deed their very lives, are at stake; the Bei­jing-backed gov­ern­ment, for the prece­dent it would set, and the hope it would in­spire.

As the vi­o­lence mounts — most of it, to date, on the part of the po­lice, or in some cases the Triad gangs hired to beat and in­tim­i­date the pro­test­ers — so does the like­li­hood of mass blood­shed, a reprise of the Tien­an­men mas­sacre of 30 years ago. Some of the pro­test­ers may in­deed hope to tempt Bei­jing into such an ap­palling over­step; how­ever hor­rific the prospect, or im­prob­a­ble their chances, it is dif­fi­cult to blame them.

For as the peo­ple of the world’s freest city fend off be­ing swal­lowed by one of the world’s most re­pres­sive dic­ta­tor­ships, they do so largely alone. Fifty-six years ago, when West Ber­lin faced a sim­i­lar threat from the East­ern Bloc, the demo­cratic world ral­lied to its cause – be­cause its cause, they knew, was their cause.

President John F. Kennedy went to Ber­lin to give his great, mov­ing “ich bin ein Ber­liner” speech, declar­ing be­fore the world that “all free men, wher­ever they may live, are cit­i­zens of Ber­lin.” Th­ese were not just words — it was NATO pol­icy to de­fend the city with arms, if nec­es­sary.

And to­day? The president of the United States refers to the pro­test­ers as “ri­ot­ers,” the Bei­jing-ap­proved term. Should President Xi Jin­ping de­cide to sup­press the un­rest in Hong Kong by force, he seems to be sig­nalling, he would be will­ing to look the other way — per­haps for rea­sons of state (what are a few hun­dred or even thou­sand lives if it helps close a trade deal?), or per­haps just out of his ha­bit­ual ad­mi­ra­tion for dic­ta­tors. But the gov­ern­ment of Canada — 300,000 of whose cit­i­zens, let us re­mem­ber, live in the city — has been scarcely more ro­bust in their de­fence; nei­ther have most western gov­ern­ments.

That Hong Kongers have pressed on, re­gard­less — two mil­lion of them, more than a quar­ter of the city’s pop­u­la­tion, fill­ing the streets in early June — is a tes­ta­ment as much to the grav­ity of the sit­u­a­tion as to any­thing else. Their strug­gle is heroic, yes; doomed, prob­a­bly; but mostly it is un­avoid­able.

It isn’t only or even mostly about the ex­tra­di­tion bill, in­tro­duced in the city-state’s leg­is­la­ture in April, which would have ex­posed Hong Kongers who of­fended Bei­jing’s sense of what was right and proper — say, by pub­licly de­nounc­ing its abuses — to the threat of be­ing spir­ited away to the main­land, there to dis­ap­pear into the fog of the Chi­nese ju­di­cial sys­tem. What is il­le­gal but not infrequent now — Bei­jing’s agents are not known for their punc­til­ious­ness about the law — would be­come both le­gal and, pre­sum­ably, fre­quent.

That the bill has been shelved, but not with­drawn, is not, there­fore, the is­sue. It is, rather, the broader cam­paign of sub­ver­sion the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment has mounted against the freedoms Hong Kongers were promised they would keep un­der the 1984 agree­ment by which con­trol of the ter­ri­tory passed from Great Bri­tain to China — the prin­ci­ple known as “one coun­try, two sys­tems,” sup­pos­edly to re­main in force for 50 years af­ter the han­dover in 1997. It is true that Hong Kong, for all the lib­erty its cit­i­zens other­wise en­joyed, was never a democ­racy un­der Bri­tish rule. Nev­er­the­less the agree­ment stip­u­lated, as part of the ter­ri­tory’s Ba­sic Law (con­sti­tu­tion), that both the ex­ec­u­tive and the leg­is­la­ture would “ul­ti­mately” be elected by uni­ver­sal suf­frage. Instead, half the leg­is­la­ture are elected from so-called “func­tional con­stituen­cies” — pro­fes­sional or other spe­cial-in­ter­est groups, gen­er­ally viewed as be­ing un­der the thumb of Bei­jing — while the chief ex­ec­u­tive is cho­sen by a 1,200-mem­ber “elec­tion com­mit­tee,” again un­der Bei­jing’s con­trol.

By the time of the 2014 “Umbrella Move­ment” protests it was clear to most Hong Kongers that this would never change: the prom­ise of democ­racy was a sham. The ex­tra­di­tion bill re­vealed the regime’s prom­ises with re­gard to their le­gal freedoms to be of sim­i­lar worth, and the rest with them: the “high de­gree of au­ton­omy” the ter­ri­tory was sup­posed to en­joy, its “un­changed” so­cial and eco­nomic sys­tems, and so forth. As long as the odds must seem, Hong Kongers plainly feel they have noth­ing to lose.

So, with the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army warm­ing up in the bullpen, the ques­tion be­comes: how should the demo­cratic world re­act, if the worst hap­pens? We know how it will re­act, most likely: with the same ir­res­o­lu­tion and in­dif­fer­ence as it has un­til now, only per­haps with a few more finely worded state­ments of re­gret. This would be not only moral cow­ardice, but a kind of sur­ren­der; it would be­tray not just Hong Kongers’ in­ter­ests, but our own.

For Hong Kong’s fight is our fight. Its peo­ple are on the front lines of what is ever more clearly a global strug­gle, a new Cold War. China may not be threat­en­ing the West with nu­clear an­ni­hi­la­tion, as of old, but it is very plainly bent on ex­port­ing its val­ues, if not its sys­tem of gov­ern­ment, to other coun­tries. Sov­er­eign Chi­nese soil though Hong Kong may now be, the demo­cratic world re­tains an in­ter­est in its de­fence, if not by mil­i­tary means than by ev­ery means short of it.

A mil­i­tary as­sault on Hong Kong would have to spell, at a min­i­mum, a cat­a­clysmic re­set in China’s re­la­tions with the rest of the world: the sever­est sanc­tions, an end to the One China pol­icy, a re­newed com­mit­ment to the de­fence of Tai­wan, the works. If there is any chance of avert­ing such a dire event, it is best to say so now. Would China be de­terred? Who can say? In the end, like the pro­test­ers in Hong Kong, we have no choice.

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