Opinion: What Americans should learn from China’s shutdown of Hong Kong’s last pro-democracy newspaper |
As Senate Republicans blocked a bill to expand Americans’ voting rights, the Chinese government destroyed Apple Daily, the pro-democracy tabloid that campaigned for greater voting rights in Hong Kong.
The comparison is worth making, due to how China has systematically shredded Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms over the past year. Under the guise of a new national security law and COVID-19, Beijing reduced voting rights, while arresting pro-democracy activists and silencing the media.
This should be a sharp reminder of the current threats to America’s democratic institutions. Our threats do not come from Beijing but from within – from GOP leaders who undermine the concept of free and fair elections in an effort to rig the system in their favor.
But a look at the tragedy that befell Apple Daily should remind us that we must continue to fight to preserve and protect the electoral freedoms we are still blessed with.
Apple Daily owner Jimmy Lai fought to preserve democracy even though he was a mid-size David against a huge Beijing Goliath. He could end up – as he did – in prison.
Yet even Lai had never expected Hong Kong’s quasi-democracy to be crushed so quickly – or his newspaper to be shut down.
A wealthy clothing mogul, he founded Apple Daily in 1995 as a tabloid that combined scandal with anti-corruption investigations of local officials and constant attacks on the Chinese Communist Party. Rather than profit from his wealth and keep his mouth shut like most Hong Kong businessmen, he fought for the right to vote.
The scrappy Apple Daily, one of the most widely read newspapers in Hong Kong, has consistently campaigned for broad votes. Beijing had promised this extension in the basic law of Hong Kong, when the territory was returned by Great Britain to China in 1997. The law provided for a gradual extension by universal suffrage to choose the chief executive of Hong Kong , a promise that Beijing has consistently delayed and has now abandoned.
When I met Lai in November 2019 at her airy, sunny hilltop home in Hong Kong, her newspaper was a big supporter of the huge pro-democracy protests that had exploded against a bill allowing the extradition of Hong Kong people. to be tried on the mainland. Chinese courts. Hong Kong Democrats value their independent courts which operate under a British common law system, not under the control of the Communist Party.
Lai was (far-sighted) worried that some students had turned violent out of frustration, and that Beijing would use this as an excuse for a crackdown. “I wrote that we cannot do justice on our own,” he said.
But the fundamental problem, he continued, was that Beijing did not understand why the pro-Democrats wanted their freedoms. “The rule of law is a fundamental Western value,” he said, over tea and cookies. “Beijing looks at this through the prism of very different values. Their idea is to suppress the violence, not to solve the problem.
“They don’t see why what we’re asking for is so important. If 1.4 billion people can live peacefully under a more authoritarian regime, we have semi-autonomy and cause many more problems. “
However, he was optimistic that Hong Kong Democrats could move towards broader suffrage via local elections in the fall of 2019. “You don’t get universal suffrage without long-term resistance,” he said. -He insists. And indeed, the local elections were a triumph for the pro-democracy camp over the pro-Beijing parties, creating momentum for another victory in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
Nervous about the advance of democracy, Beijing postponed parliamentary elections for a year and has now arrested nearly all pro-democracy leaders. Where young people once studied the Basic Law, they are now required to attend “patriotic education” courses.
And Beijing jailed Lai last year under the new security law. Earlier this month, hundreds of police raided the newspaper’s newsroom, seizing computers, freezing its assets and arresting editors and one of its columnists. The newspaper was eventually forced to close on Wednesday.
All of this makes Jimmy Lai’s words even more important to Americans, especially those who have forgotten what democracy means (with a small d).
“Obviously beyond the [U.S.] the trade war with China will be a long-term conflict with China, a rivalry of opposing values, ”he told me. “Hong Kong is fighting the first battle of this cold war because we share the same values. “
He urged Americans to stand up for these values, as an example for those who espoused them for their own people. “America should not be ashamed of its moral authority, of its values. Express them.
And he described how he visited the beaches of Normandy, saying those beaches symbolize “America we admire, who fought for freedom.”
While Lai is in jail, his newspaper silenced, facing a possible life sentence, his example should remind us of pro-Democrats in Hong Kong who still hope America sets the democratic example, even if it does not. cannot save them from despots in the short term.
In recent years, we have failed miserably to set this example. The GOP Big Lie stain and the Jan. 6 cover-up still overshadow any American effort to pose as a democratic model. But if Jimmy Lai could keep fighting for democratic values through thick and thin, how can we do less?