Hong Kongers did not contest China’s takeover in 1997; they simply insisted, patiently, on following the letter of China’s promises to preserve their free market and political liberties, including freedom of speech and assembly. When they felt constrained, they protested — but with a certain dignity and reserve. That changed when China tried to ram through a new extradition law this year. Hong Kongers recoiled, fearing they could be dragged into China’s arbitrary and brutal system of political repression. Reverence for the rule of law, too, is why they were so outraged by the excessive use of force by the Hong Kong police, once a paragon of their society.
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam, subservient to China’s rulers, on Friday invoked an emergency-powers law not used in more than 50 years — and never since the handover — to outlaw the use of face masks by demonstrators, many of whom have worn them to defy identification and possible prosecution. By turning to an emergency ordinance, which gives her almost unlimited powers, Ms. Lam is taking a wrecking ball to the ideals of Hong Kong. As a practical matter, she could use the ordinance in other ways, such as to impose a curfew to silence the protests, which have only expanded since they picked up steam in June.
Under pressure from the streets, Ms. Lam eventually withdrew the objectionable extradition law, and, at almost any point, the demonstrators would probably have been satisfied if she had met relatively modest demands for an investigation into police brutality and an adherence to democratic norms. But neither Ms. Lam nor the overlords in Beijing understood this, and the latest crackdown is the most stark evidence yet of their self-defeating miscalculation. They have entirely destroyed the “one country, two systems” pledge under which the handover was made. For years, Taiwan, a thriving democracy, has watched — warily — how that pledge would unfold. Now the answer is clear: China will stop at nothing to achieve absolute control.
President Trump, waging a trade war with China, has been equivocal about Hong Kong, saying he does not want to interfere but also reminding China that it promised to “protect Hong Kong’s freedom, legal system and democratic ways of life.” Congress ought to send a stronger message by approving legislation requiring a review of whether Hong Kong is sufficiently autonomous from China to deserve its current special economic and legal treatment from the United States. Ms. Lam’s emergency ordinance adds to the growing evidence that China’s authoritarian leaders are liquidating Hong Kong’s cherished principles.