3 April 2024

China Tightens Its Grip on Hong Kong


A few weeks ago, I was invited by several churches in and around Oxford to participate in a full-day meeting they had organized to welcome Hong Kong émigrés and their families to the area. Nearly all attendees were beneficiaries of the visa scheme introduced by the United Kingdom in 2021, which enables Hong Kong residents seeking refuge from escalating repression to relocate to the UK and offers them a path to British citizenship. Many had already settled down and were actively contributing to their new communities.

Many of these expatriates’ professional qualifications stand to make them highly valued members of British society. Many also demonstrated extraordinary entrepreneurial skills and fierce ambition. One student observed that many of the top spots at their school were now held by new students from Hong Kong. It appears that Hong Kong’s brain drain is Britain’s brain gain.

It is unlikely that anyone in Hong Kong’s current government understands why this outflow is occurring. But it is the inevitable outcome of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) effort to control Hong Kong without the input of its residents.

Naturally, those I spoke with were sad that they had been driven into exile by the establishment of a police state. Hong Kong was a remarkable and widely admired global city: beautiful, prosperous, and inclusive. It had outstanding public services, a police force that garnered broad public support, a vibrant civil society, and young people whose love for the city’s democratic values far surpassed any conceivable regard for Chinese communism.

Young people’s desire to live in a free and diverse society underscores the contrast between Chinese cultural values and the CPC’s oppressive regime. China’s leaders have consistently failed to acknowledge this reality, revealing the regime’s inability to reform itself, let alone establish an appealing sociopolitical model.

During the gathering at Oxford, when I asked people why they had left Hong Kong, they pointed to their children. Departing had been a painful experience for many. But they were determined not to allow their children to grow up in a society that neither understood the meaning of freedom nor recognized its citizens’ right to learn about their own history and stay informed about global events.

This illustrates China’s ongoing failure to understand Hong Kong. While rewriting the school textbooks of the children whose ambitions they were stifling, CPC officials adamantly refused to acknowledge that Hong Kong had ever been a British colony. In their view, it had merely been an occupied territory, but they were reluctant to specify who had occupied it.

The vast majority of Hong Kong’s current residents are either refugees or the descendants of refugees from Communist China. They fled the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong’s Great Famine that claimed the lives of 20-40 million people and forced some to resort to cannibalism, and the economically disastrous “Great Leap Forward.” While there are valid questions about the UK’s historic relationship with Hong Kong, one cannot ignore the fact that many Hong Kongers sought refuge from Chinese communism in a British colony.

The most recent exodus was triggered by the Chinese government’s comprehensive and vengeful crackdown on the city’s democratic freedoms and rule of law. Over the past three years, Hong Kong’s puppet government has eagerly enforced Beijing’s oppressive measures.

In yet another violation of the Joint Declaration treaty between China and the UK, which was intended to ensure that Hong Kong’s autonomy and way of life would be safeguarded until 2047, Chief Executive John Lee’s puppet administration recently enacted its own repressive national-security law. The new law, known as Article 23, came into force on March 23 after being pushed through the local government’s rubber-stamp legislature, along with a series of other oppressive measures. Ostensibly, it aims to curb treasonous or seditious activities. In reality, the law’s goal is to suppress any remaining democratic activism in the city and sever all contact between freedom advocates and the outside world.

The law also takes aim at so-called “soft resistance,” although the precise meaning of this term remains unclear. In fact, some of the offenses are so vaguely defined that they allow the authorities to detain virtually anyone they want on fabricated or absurd charges. For example, one could be arrested for keeping an old copy of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, which was forced to shut down in 2021, and showing it to a friend in their own home. There is even uncertainty about whether Catholics could be prosecuted for things they reveal during confession.

The introduction of Hong Kong’s new national-security law has been roundly condemned by the UK, the European Union, and the United States. In Washington, there is growing pressure to update the State Department’s travel advisories to alert individuals and companies about the potential risks of visiting Hong Kong or doing business there. The economic consequences of such a move are clear: more people will leave, and fewer companies will consider establishing operations in the city.

None of this should come as a surprise. This latest crackdown illustrates the CPC’s idea of the rule of law, which the American China scholar Perry Link called the “anaconda in the chandelier”: citizens do not know when or how the state will crack down on them; they just know that it will, so they must always remain vigilant.

The CPC’s anaconda has now been exported to Hong Kong. But if the economies of China and Hong Kong start to falter (as seems to be the case today), perhaps people will realize that they must throttle the snake before it chokes the life out of them.

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