On Monday morning (Hong Kong time), police arrested pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai, his two sons and several of his executives under the new and expansive national security law passed by Beijing. One of the charges is “colluding with a foreign power,” a clear reference to Lai’s interactions with U.S. officials on behalf of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, including Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and others. Lai is a Chinese-born entrepreneur who built a media empire. He leads the media group Next Digital, which owns Apple Daily, one of the largest news organizations in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Police also raided Next Digital’s Hong Kong offices Monday, a raid the company streamed live on its Facebook Page. The raids and arrests come only three days after the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam and 10 other officials for “implementing Beijing’s policies of suppression of freedom and democratic processes.” On Monday, China announced sanctions on 11 Americans, including Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.). China’s foreign ministry said they had “behav[ed] badly on Hong Kong-related issues.”
By attacking those Hong Kong figures who have worked with the United States, Beijing and the Hong Kong leadership are warning anyone who would seek help from us that Washington can’t protect them. That’s why the first element of a U.S. response should address those whose only crime was to speak to Americans. Washington should help them escape, right now, before they are thrown in prison, perhaps for the rest of their lives.
In a tweet Monday, Rubio said the free world must respond quickly to the new arrests and “provide safe harbor to at-risk Hong Kongers.” Rubio led a bipartisan group of U.S. senators in June who introduced the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act, which would remove limits on the number of Hong Kongers who could apply for refugee status and make it easier for those who have participated in protests to apply for political asylum.
The administration has the power to grant safe harbor to Hong Kongers using executive authority as well. One model is the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, which the George W. Bush administration created to allow Cuban doctors to defect to the United States once they were in a third country. The program was created under existing statutes that allow the Department of Homeland Security to allow foreigners to be admitted to the United States in the case of “urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit.”
The United States and other countries will have to come up with an assortment of options to thwart Beijing’s plan to crush efforts by Hong Kongers to claim the rights granted in their own constitution, which Beijing agreed to preserve when it took over the city in 1997. But that’s only one part of the needed response. Chinese and Hong Kong authorities must pay an increasing cost for their repression or they will continue to escalate it.
The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a U.S. law signed by President Trump last November, provides for sanctions against anyone who participates in suppression of basic rights including the practice of journalism. The Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which Trump signed into law last month, provides for sanctions against any foreign persons or foreign financial institutions that do business with Chinese or Hong Kong officials engaged in human rights abuses. These are what are often referred to as “secondary sanctions,” which aim to prevent abusers from profiting from their malign actions to force their business partners to choose between them and access to the U.S. financial system.
The Trump administration has been criticized for punishing Hong Kong economically, by curbing sensitive exports and revoking Hong Kong’s special economic status in June. But without basic rule of law and freedom of information, Hong Kong simply does not have the integrity and trust that justify this status. Plus, Beijing can’t be allowed to reap the financial benefits of a free Hong Kong while crushing the region’s freedom at the same time.
In the end, there may be no way to deter Chinese authorities from turning Hong Kong into just another Chinese city living under Orwellian systems of information purity and political enforcement. But the very least we can do is to protect those who wish to flee and to punish those responsible for the repression and all those who help them.