Lai, who owns the staunchly pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, has been targeted repeatedly by Beijing and the Hong Kong government. As China escalates its attacks on Hong Kong’s democracy movement and tries to silence Lai, the Chinese government is clearly hoping to exploit Americans’ distraction during the presidential transition.
Over the weekend, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that China’s national security law “makes a mockery of justice,” adding that Lai’s “only ‘crime’ is speaking the truth about the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarianism and fear of freedom. Charges should be dropped and he should be released immediately.”
Jake Sullivan, who will be president-elect Joe Biden’s national security adviser, tweeted on Dec. 8 about the arrest of eight Hong Kong pro-democracy activists, saying, “We stand united with our allies and partners against China’s assault on Hong Kong’s freedoms—and to help those persecuted find safe haven.”
But tweets are not enough, and a stronger, more vocal show of support would be best if it came from the person who will soon occupy the Oval Office. History shows us that such a statement of support from an American leader can be doubly beneficial, putting an authoritarian regime on notice and reinforcing the resolve of those who fight for liberty.
Responding to a letter from Soviet dissident and scientist Andrei Sakharov asking for his support, the newly inaugurated President Jimmy Carter in 1977 publicly promised in his reply: “We shall use our good offices to seek the release of prisoners of conscience … I am always glad to hear from you, and I wish you well.” This was the first official statement from an American president to a Soviet dissident, and it electrified those of us in the Soviet dissident community, fortifying our struggle and confirming its significance on the international stage.
Similarly, President Ronald Reagan’s moral framing of the Cold War when he branded the Soviet Union an “evil empire” in 1983 had a galvanizing effect when the phrase reached even those of us stuck in the gulag.
And make no mistake, China today is behaving just as the Soviet Union did. The authorities in Beijing who are calling the shots in Hong Kong would clearly like to crush Lai and other activists arrested in recent weeks. But China’s leaders are patient — they are essentially running a phantom international referendum, checking to see what they can get away with as they increase repression, gauging how much it might hurt China in the West.
This tactic is straight out of the Soviets’ KGB playbook: take small steps, watch the international reaction and figure out your next move. The Chinese government has even developed its own version of the Soviet gulag. The network of camps imprisoning 1 million Uighurs is instrumental in Beijing’s war on any expression of independent identity, also seen in its repression of Tibetan culture..
I have had three extended Zoom conversations with Lai over the past few weeks, including for an hour-long podcast. He acknowledged that such communications with the outside world could prompt China’s wrath, and indeed news reports say that the national security law was invoked because of his comments in foreign media.
It was clear in our talks that Lai was preparing himself for what might come. He asked about my experience of nine years in the Soviet gulag and how to cope with the isolation, the uncertainty, the fear when those heavy doors close behind you.
But I quickly discovered that this brave man needs no coaching. What I learned from hard experience, he grasps instinctively. He already understands that jailers cannot humiliate you; you can only humiliate yourself. And that while your body may be shackled, in prison your spirit can roam free. Most important, Lai knows that he is in the center of a historic struggle. As the authorities increase their persecution of him, they unintentionally make everything he says and does in custody more meaningful.
Here’s something on which Americans on the left and right can agree: Lai must be kept safe and Hong Kong must be free. Why not start the new Congress with a joint resolution demanding the preservation of Hong Kong’s liberties and confirming that how China treats Hong Kong will determine how Congress reacts to Chinese trade and diplomatic initiatives?
Lai told me that being targeted because of his support for democracy is “a very heavy burden,” but “on the other hand, it’s very uplifting.” He added: “I’m put in a position to do such a wonderful thing; how could I waste it?”
The people of Hong Kong are looking to the free world for support. We can do a wonderful thing too — how could we waste it?