Editorial: The last gasps of Hong Kong democracy

The Times Editorial Board
Hong Kong activists, from left, Joshua Wong, Ivan Lam and Agnes Chow arrive at a court in Hong Kong, Monday, Nov. 22. 2020. The trio appear at court for their trial as they faces charges related to the besieging of a police station during anti-government protests last year. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)
Hong Kong activists, from left, Joshua Wong, Ivan Lam and Agnes Chow arrive at court on Nov. 22, facing charges related to the besieging of a police station during anti-government protests in 2019. (Associated Press )

Dozens of pro-democracy politicians and activists in Hong Kong were rounded up around dawn Wednesday as the U.S. Congress was preparing for a contentious fight over the electoral college vote — a fight that would soon prompt a mob of President Trump's supporters to storm the United States Capitol. The timing of the arrests was not coincidental. While our nation has been mired in political gridlock and dysfunction, authoritarians around the world have gleefully exploited the absence of American leadership as an opportunity to run roughshod over dissent and opposition.

The raids in Hong Kong — on homes across the city, as well as several media outlets and a law firm — escalated political repression in the former British colony, which reverted to Chinese control in 1997 under the principle of “one country, two systems.” It removed any pretense that Beijing will respect the commitment it made with Britain in 1984 to maintain Hong Kong's capitalist economy and way of life until 2047.

In some ways, the raids were the predictable consequence of the national security law Beijing imposed in Hong Kong last June. The new law criminalized inciting hatred against China, eroded the right to open criminal trials, authorized close monitoring of foreign media organizations and created harsh punishments for secession, subversion, terrorism and colluding with foreign powers — the pretexts China uses in cracking down on dissent.

Since June, pro-democracy organizations have disbanded, social media accounts have been deleted and prominent pro-democracy activists have gone into exile. The courageous, peaceful mass protests that swept Hong Kong in 2014 and 2019 are unlikely to happen again. News organizations that for decades have based operations in Hong Kong are pulling out and moving editorial operations elsewhere in Asia.

In arresting at least 53 people in the roundups this week, Beijing has made clear that any pretense of democracy in Hong Kong is over. Many of those arrested were accused of subversion. Their supposed crime: Participating in primaries last year for opposition parties that sought to win a majority in the Hong Kong Legislative Council and oust the territory’s spineless chief executive, Carrie Lam. To criminalize the pursuit of office is to reject the idea of democracy itself.

The Trump administration has, to its credit, condemned the crackdown. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the draconian law the "latest in a series of actions that fundamentally undermine Hong Kong's autonomy and freedoms."

But let's face it: No one takes the Trump administration all that seriously on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The mob riot at the Capitol by people whipped into a frenzy by Trump, right-wing media and the president's enablers was good news for dictators and autocrats worldwide, who love to argue that America's messy democracy is chaotic and ineffective.

Antony Blinken, President-elect Joe Biden's choice for secretary of state, said of the Hong Kong roundups: “The sweeping arrests of pro-democracy demonstrators are an assault on those bravely advocating for universal rights.” We look forward to an administration that will actively defend and promote democracy itself, at home and abroad. Hongkongers who support the territory's rich tradition of free speech and the right to protest need to know that the world has not forgotten them.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.