But most people in Hong Kong did not celebrate. For them, this day marked the loss of their freedoms and democratic institutions. Since 1997, July 1 has been the high point of a series of annual protests and rallies celebrating Hong Kong’s once-flourishing civil society. But not this year. Last summer, the CCP implemented a national security law for Hong Kong that has destroyed its judicial independence, the safety of its businesses, and allowed Hong Kong authorities to imprison would-be protest organizers as well as the journalists who would have covered them. This July 1, propaganda banners celebrating the CCP’s 100-year anniversary stood where pro-democracy signs would otherwise have been. This year, the streets were filled with police, not celebrators.
“In Hong Kong now, you can barely recognize it was the first of July,” Nathan Law, a Hong Kong pro-democracy student activist now living in exile in London, told me during an interview. “Normally, the first of July was a showcase of civil society and big crowds of Hong Kong people. But today, you can only see a Hong Kong that is being silenced.”
The international community should look at Hong Kong, not Beijing, if it truly wants to understand the CCP, Law said. The party has not changed in 100 years. It’s still bent on centralizing power and protecting its political interests above all else. Hong Kong’s tragic situation should alert the world to that reality, he said.
“We had the wrong perception and now we must have the right perception and understand Xi Jinping’s narrative,” said Law. “They are very confident and aggressive now, and they see the concept of democracy as a major threat to them. They will try to dismantle and discredit it as much as they can.”
There’s a sense of fatalism in Washington these days about Hong Kong and what, if anything, the international community can still do. Hong Kong activists insist that their democracy movement is not dead, it’s just been forced underground. The world’s democracies can still help by raising the pressure on Beijing to reverse course and raising the costs for China if it insists on crushing Hong Kong. Law says the struggle between democracy and autocracies is playing out in Hong Kong now, and if the world abandons Hong Kong, an emboldened Xi will soon continue on to Taiwan.
“Hong Kong is not a lost cause. There are still people fighting on the streets, they are not giving up. We just need more support and more determination from the international community,” he said. “If the defense of Hong Kong’s freedom and democracy is allowed to lose, then the next one will definitely be Taiwan.”
Xi has long made clear his intention to complete the reunification of China and Taiwan — under the CCP’s rule. During his Thursday speech commemorating the anniversary, he called achieving reunification “a historic mission” and the CCP’s “unshakable commitment,” calling on “compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Strait” to advance reunification.
In Washington, there’s still a reluctance to believe that Xi really intends to take back control of Taiwan by force. But he doesn’t need to invade, said Law, because the model he used in Hong Kong, which stopped short of a full invasion, worked. The CCP is already applying many of the tactics it used successfully in Hong Kong to Taiwan, including disinformation campaigns, political interference, elite capture and coercion of businesses.
“What we should learn from Hong Kong is that Xi Jinping does exactly what he says he will do,” said Dan Blumenthal, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “He succeeded in Hong Kong with impunity and he’s talking the same way about Taiwan now. We ought to take him seriously.”
Blumenthal’s recent book, “The China Nightmare,” warns that a CCP that’s both fragile and aggressive represents a special kind of danger. Whether you believe that the CCP’s aggression is rooted in insecurity or overconfidence, all signs point to it getting worse, not better. Beijing is stepping up its genocide against Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang, accelerating its military expansion, and even using the pandemic to advance its political interests through bullying and blackmail.
The lesson of the last century was that appeasing aggressive, repressive, expansionist, nationalist, totalitarian dictatorships is more dangerous than confronting them. This July 1 is a stark reminder that we should believe Xi Jinping when he threatens to attack and undermine freedom and democracy — and then we must do more to push back, in Hong Kong, in Taiwan and in our own country.