Three decades ago, the world watched in horror as China’s rulers crushed their nation’s dream of democracy beneath tank treads. Today, the Communist Party of China stands ready to do the same, but with tactics and techniques more sophisticated and insidious than those available to their predecessors. While Hong Kong has won a temporary reprieve, its government has only suspended, not fully withdrawn, the extradition bill that sparked more than a million of its residents to take to the streets in protest. Still, the events of the last week demonstrate two important lessons. The first is that Hong Kong remains a crucial battleground in the struggle between the rule of law and totalitarianism. The second is that international pressure and shame are important tools to chasten the Party’s behavior.
In April of 1989, hundreds of thousands of Chinese students took to the streets of Beijing to demand greater freedoms. Gathering in Tiananmen Square and invoking the great student movements of China’s past, the demonstrators erected a statue to liberty and celebrated Chinese reformers. For a fleeting moment, with communist regimes on the heels around the world and the celebrated reformer Deng Xiaoping at the helm of the Communist Party of China, a better future seemed finally within the grasp of the Chinese people.
But on the night of June 3, those dreams turned into nightmares. At the Party’s command, troops stormed the Square, slaughtering thousands of fleeing students. On the morning of June 4, the world woke to a harsh reality that we must never forget -- the CPC will not go quietly into the night. Even so-called reformers will stop at nothing to preserve the Party.
To be sure, there are important differences between Tiananmen and Hong Kong -- but the differences only make what the Party is trying to do in Hong Kong more disturbing. Hong Kong, after all, is one of China’s Special Administrative Regions, with special protections that mainland Chinese do not enjoy. Many once hoped that the liberalism of Hong Kong would spread to the mainland, but Beijing is determined that the opposite should occur. Democracy is not spreading. It is being strangled.
Since 1989, the Communist Party of China has revolutionized its repressive security apparatus. Spending billions of dollars, President Xi Jinping has developed tactics and techniques that are subtler than those of Deng, but far more dangerous in the long term. Chinese leaders now rely upon sophisticated facial-recognition software, social credit scores, and intrusive surveillance to chill dissent and target activists before they have a chance to organize. But make no mistake: Whether on the streets or online, whether with tank columns or artificial intelligence, Xi will stop at nothing to destroy any opposition to him and his party.
Properly understood, in Hong Kong, the Communist Party of China is testing its people and the world. Hong Kong is far away from the Party’s seat of power, and protestors have sought retain their current rights, not to win new ones. For all these reasons, the Communist Party’s decades-long crackdown is not about protecting its existential interests -- it’s about seeing what the regime can get away with.
This is why the indefinite suspension of the proposed extradition law is so important. It means that a combination of external and internal pressure can still move the needle for the CPC. This is a lesson the free world would do well to internalize. Just as the surest way to invite further Party aggression is failing to act in the face of their abuses, standing strong against aggression and violence not only is the right thing to do, but actively helps Beijing understand when it crosses boundaries at its own risk.
No doubt, CPC leaders are actively plotting when to make a renewed push to further restrain rights in Hong Kong, be it by resurrecting the extradition law or by new “national security” laws pushed by General Secretary Xi Jinping. Rather than becoming complacent, the U.S. Congress should seize this opportunity to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which would add teeth to 1992 legislation affording Hong Kong special treatment so long as it continues to “retain its current lifestyle and legal, social, and economic systems.” The White House, along with Congressional leadership, should make it crystal clear to the Communist Party of China and to the entire world that the United States continues to carefully monitor Hong Kong and that any violence against future protests will be met with Magnitsky sanctions against responsible officials.
Beyond Hong Kong, we should speak out about the concentration camps and cultural genocide in Xinjiang, again sanctioning the officials responsible. We must also renew our commitment to our friends in Taiwan. Beyond bolstering the island’s defenses, we must also resist Beijing’s campaign to isolate Taiwan in capitals around the world and to subvert its autonomy at home. Beijing has shown that it should never have been trusted with Hong Kong. We can never trust it with Taiwan.
Above all, policymakers should be clear: We do not have a China problem. We have a Communist Party of China problem. As the courage of a million-plus protesters in Hong Kong has demonstrated, the Chinese people are the primary victims of the Party’s oppression. We must help them seize this opportunity for a better future. They are showing that China can still choose the path of peace, prosperity, and dignity for all. The question is: Do we have the courage to stand with them?