The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Think democracy isn’t endangered? Just look what happened in Hong Kong.

Supporters of China sing patriotic songs and wave flags in Hong Kong on July 1. (Jerome Favre/EPA-EFE-Shutterstock)
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It was no accident that Chinese leader Xi Jinping repeatedly used the word “chaos” to describe Hong Kong as he marked the July 1 anniversary of the 1997 handover of the former British colony. Mr. Xi vowed that Hong Kong would move “from chaos to control.” But what he was really affirming is that China’s leaders will not tolerate democracy and its discontents, and intend to finish off Hong Kong as a beacon of free thinking and openness.

The sight of citizens in the streets demanding their rights to speak freely — which played out in Hong Kong demonstrations in 2019 — frightens Mr. Xi and the leadership of one of the most sophisticated authoritarian systems in the world. “People have learned the hard way that Hong Kong must not be destabilized and cannot afford to see chaos,” Mr. Xi declared at the swearing-in of John Lee, the new Hong Kong chief executive, who had overseen the harsh police response to protests in recent years.

Once upon a time, Hong Kong earned respect for its rule of law and a lively public square. When China took over in 1997, it pledged “one country, two systems,” under which Hong Kong would retain many freedoms absent on the mainland, including free speech. The autonomy of Hong Kong was supposed to last 50 years, but at the halfway mark, China has brought Hong Kong much closer to the stifling unfreedom that rules the rest of the country.

The turning point was introduction of a bill on criminal extradition in 2019, under which, it was feared, anyone could be grabbed and sent to the mainland, lacking rule of law and guarantees of due process. The bill unleashed massive protests, including one in August in which 200,000 Hong Kongers linked hands to form human chains that stretched for miles. While the bill was eventually shelved, a new national security law was imposed on Hong Kong in 2020 with provisions making it easier to prosecute protest and dissent. According to the Economist, nearly 200 people have been arrested under the national-security law, including the prominent newspaper mogul Jimmy Lai. “Almost every prominent Democrat in Hong Kong is now either in jail or exile,” the magazine reports. “A culture of fear and reporting has seeped into the civil service and schools, courts and universities.” Hong Kong residents are encouraged to inform on one another through a tip line, and a “once outspoken legal profession has been neutered.” Teachers, social workers and labor unions have been brought to heel.

As a financial hub and gateway to China, Hong Kong might yet bounce back from pandemic setbacks and closures. But politically, China has smothered it. There’s a tendency to dismiss warnings that democracy is threatened around the world, to think that it just can’t happen. Take a look at Hong Kong under China’s rule. A once-vibrant freedom vanished in only a few years. That is alarmingly real.

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