It’s just the latest example of how the Chinese Communist Party is using covid-19 as a pretext to throttle Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. The city’s puppet government has banned gatherings of more than four people — which conveniently makes it unlawful for people to march together or even hold meetings. Under the state of emergency, anyone who participates in or even provides a venue for prohibited gatherings could face six months in jail.
On April 18, authorities arrested 15 leaders of the movement — including former legislator Martin Lee and media tycoon Jimmy Lai — on charges of participating in unlawful assemblies. Joshua Wong, the student-activist who serves as secretary general of the pro-democracy party Demosisto, says that if the same arrests had taken place just a few months earlier, hundreds of thousands of people would have taken to the streets. As recently as January, he points out in an interview, 1 million people came out to protest in a city with just 7 million residents. But the state of emergency has made it “impossible for us to mobilize people, get them on the street.”
Now, Beijing is attempting to take advantage of the lockdown to ram through a new national security law banning treason, sedition and secession in Hong Kong — which would effectively end the “one country, two systems” principle established after the British handover in 1997. Under the terms of that transition, Hong Kong was supposed to enjoy a high degree of autonomy until 2047. But now China is moving to take full control of the territory.
Wong says the pro-democracy forces will not be intimidated: “This summer, I believe we will get the people on the street, more than a million people show our anger and solidarity, and to keep on the fight.” Demonstrators plan a massive march to mark the first anniversary of the pro-democracy protests, which began in June 2019 when nearly 2 million people took to the street and forced the withdrawal of a bill that would have allowed Hong Kong people to be extradited to China.
The goal is to build momentum over the summer leading up to September’s elections for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, its highest legislative body. Last November, pro-democracy forces crushed the pro-Beijing parties in Hong Kong’s local district elections, winning 85 percent of the seats in a vote considered a referendum on the protest movement. Now they plan to repeat that performance by winning a majority in the Legislative Council. They could then use the legislature as a platform to demand free elections to replace the city’s reviled, Beijing-appointed chief executive, Carrie Lam. “We have to elect the leader of this city,” Wong says.
It is an uphill battle, but Congress gave the pro-democracy forces leverage when it passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act last November. The law requires Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to issue a report determining whether Hong Kong continues to enjoy its promised autonomy. If Pompeo determines it does not, the costs for Beijing could be dire. Today, Hong Kong enjoys preferential trade treatment because U.S. law treats it as a distinct entity from China — but if Hong Kong’s autonomy disappears, so does the rationale for treating Hong Kong better. That means if Beijing launches a military intervention, interferes with the city’s free elections or refuses to respect the results, it could lose Hong Kong’s preferential trade status — a massive economic blow.
China needs to be careful, because the United States is in no mood for business as usual with Beijing. Americans’ views of China are at an all-time low, and Americans know that China’s lies and deceit are the reason they are locked in their homes and nearly 39 million are out of work. President Trump has soured on his trade deal with China. And Congress is considering a raft of bills to bring our supply chains home from China and hold Beijing accountable for the virus it unleashed on the world. The United States will not hesitate to impose a tremendous price for any crackdown in Hong Kong.