China’s communist government is increasingly brazen about creating a massive surveillance state, in which millions of cameras track every person’s whereabouts, every purchase is recorded in state databanks, every keystroke on the strictly controlled Chinese Internet is scrutinized. Powered by facial recognition software and other tools of artificial intelligence, this tireless web of watchers aims to control all that is done and said — even thought — inside the rapidly rising superpower.
Citizens of Hong Kong see clearly what Beijing is up to. When a new bill was announced this year that would permit accused criminals to be extradited from the city into the clutches of the regime — on whatever manufactured charges the government might invent — an uprising began that continues to gain steam. On Sunday, pro-democracy voters turned out in record numbers to oust communists from their local district councils.
The regime of Xi Jinping had wagered that Hong Kong’s wealthy majority would be content to trade human rights for cold, hard cash in the form of business as usual in the high-rise office suites. Instead, despite the near-daily protests and violent clashes that have sent the city into a recession, they cast their ballots for more disruption. Why? Because they hear the clocks striking thirteen.
Xi faces the most significant challenge of his power-grabbing career. Having moved to reassert the Communist Party’s dominion over a rapidly modernizing nation, he now sees China’s most modern territory fighting back. The protests in Hong Kong — and even more important, the pro-democracy landslide — vindicate the tattered faith that progress and freedom go hand-in-hand. It is a faith that strikes directly at the dark heart of one-party tyranny.
For a government that prides itself on careful strategic steps, the extradition bill has been a bungle of epic proportion. Not only has the attempted overreach roused the people of Hong Kong; their example will be noted in Shanghai, Shenzhen and even Beijing itself. Moreover, years of progress toward the party’s cherished goal of the reabsorption of Taiwan has been derailed. Everywhere, people who might have resigned themselves to dictatorship now realize that liberty has more support than they had dared to hope.
That awakening may shed light on the extraordinary leaks in recent days of secret government documents. The two troves, published by the New York Times and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, add up to one of the largest security breaches in Chinese Communist Party history. Together, they provide a detailed account of China’s most advanced experiment in high-tech oppression so far: the imprisonment of 1 million or more ethnic Uighurs in western China with the purpose of erasing their Muslim heritage.
On the pretext of fighting terrorism, the Xi regime has employed “the powerful fist of the People’s Democratic Dictatorship” (in the boastful words of the program’s architect) to round up men, women and children for “training” in concentration camps. According to an Associated Press examination of the consortium’s trove, “one document explicitly states that the purpose of the pervasive digital surveillance is ‘to prevent problems before they happen’ — in other words, to calculate who might rebel and detain them before they have a chance.”
The AP quotes Rian Thum of the University of Nottingham: “There’s no other place in the world where a computer can send you to an internment camp.”
These leaks let the outside world know that liberty has friends even inside the Chinese government. Some unknown number of officials with access to the dirty secrets of the ruling party is willing to risk their lives to resist Big Brother. The spirit of freedom is not limited to the Hong Kong frontier.
A nearly unanimous U.S. Congress has recognized the historic nature of events in China by reaffirming the U.S. commitment to guard human rights in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, President Trump is waffling, fearful that a strong stand for freedom could irritate Xi and thus scotch the trade deal Trump so desperately needs. “We have to stand with Hong Kong,” he allowed grudgingly, “but I’m also standing with President Xi. He’s a friend of mine.”
The president’s soft spot for tyrants is old news by now. Sad. But his personal friendships must not interfere with his duty to faithfully execute his office. The United States is the friend of liberty wherever brave souls dare to seek it. Deliver that message, Mr. President, while there is still time.