HONG KONG’s remarkable surge of protest against a bill allowing for extradition to the Chinese mainland has been an inspiration in these times of rising authoritarianism. An estimated 2 million people have demanded to be heard on a piece of legislation by marching through the canyons of a city they want to preserve as a beacon of openness and free markets. But with the protests comes anxiety: How will the protests translate into results, and how will the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing and its de facto subordinates in Hong Kong react?
The sea of people across the length of downtown Hong Kong undoubtedly sent shivers down the spine of Chinese President Xi Jinping. His principle of governing since 2012 has been to enforce the party’s supremacy as the paternalistic guiding force, stamping out independent thought and action. This is a direct legacy of the brutal force that was used to squelch the 1989 democracy protest in Tiananmen Square that remains a major factor in the thinking — and nightmares — of China’s leaders. They fear people power more than anything else. Throngs of independent-minded Hong Kong people on the streets, directly and openly opposing a policy of the Beijing overlords, is a challenge to everything Mr. Xi stands for. It comes after a years-long attempt to whittle away the freedoms promised Hong Kong in the 1997 handover, which envisioned “one country, two systems” for 50 years. China had earlier declared that model dead. Hong Kong’s people beg to disagree.
The half-measures of Carrie Lam, the embattled Hong Kong leader, suspending the bill and issuing an apology, were not enough. She should abandon the legislation as drafted, which could open the door to China grabbing dissidents or others from Hong Kong and bundling them off for prosecution and punishment on the mainland, where the party is above the law.
Mr. Xi ought to realize that the Hong Kong protests are tangible evidence that Chinese people can and do understand democracy, and do not have to live in an authoritarian straitjacket. Just look at Taiwan. He should see that China would reap greater rewards from an open and prosperous Hong Kong than if the city-state were transformed into a sulking, embittered prisoner of Beijing. However, this would require Mr. Xi to finally shake off the ghosts of Tiananmen and the party’s dread of freedom of expression, assembly, press, conscience and movement. His record unfortunately suggests that he is more likely to wait until things calm down and then try again, gradually suffocating Hong Kong in the bosom of China’s unfreedom. Already, Beijing has tried to wave away the protests with the old canard that it is foreign meddling.
Hong Kong enjoys special economic status with the United States under a 1992 law that recognizes that it is different from China. This offers leverage for the Trump administration and Congress to urge China to let Hong Kong breathe, or risk losing the benefits.
But the next move is up to China’s leaders. They should listen to the footfalls on the streets of Hong Kong.