Hong Kong “elected” a new chief while the world wasn’t paying attention.
Hong Kong’s current chief Carrie Lam will retire at the end of June. The selection of her successor has followed the rules Beijing dictated since it took control of Hong Kong in 1997. Beijing stamped out any hope of universal suffrage in Hong Kong in 2004.
Rather than letting more than 7 million residents in Hong Kong have a say in whom the city’s chief should be, Beijing created a “nominating committee” (which has more than 1,400 members today), the majority of which are pro-Beijing elites. The committee would “vote” for a candidate from a list of candidates approved by Beijing. Beijing has ensured that Hong Kong’s chief executive will always be its puppet through this arrangement.
In previous “selections,” Beijing usually approved two or three candidates for the nominating committee to choose from, giving an illusion of an “election” even though the committee knew which candidate Beijing preferred. This year, Beijing dropped all pretense, so John Lee was the only candidate on the ballot.
Lee served as Hong Kong’s security chief under Lam’s administration. He helped Beijing crack down on the city’s pro-democracy movement and enforced the draconian National Security Law.
The National Security Law criminalizes any act of so-called secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with a foreign country or external elements, with a maximum penalty of life in prison. The National Security Law also gives Beijing unprecedented extraterritorial power to punish anyone anywhere in the world for advocating for democracy in Hong Kong.
Evidence that Democracy Has Already Died
Lee’s hard-line approach didn’t win him much public support. According to polls before last Sunday, Lee’s approval rating was only 35 percent. He probably would have had little chance of becoming the city’s chief had a general election been held.
However, with Beijing’s blessing, 1,416 out of the 1,428 members of the nominating committee “voted” for Lee. This means Lee will become Hong Kong’s new chief executive by winning 99 percent of the ballots cast. Such irony has demonstrated how pathetic the Beijing-sanctioned “selection” process is.
Another irony about Lee’s “election” is that he will be the first Hong Kong chief under U.S. sanctions long before his term begins. In August 2020, the Trump administration imposed economic sanctions against a dozen Hong Kong officials, including Lee and Hong Kong’s current chief Carrie Lam, for “undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy after Beijing’s imposition in 2020 of the national-security law.”
These Hong Kong officials’ U.S. assets are frozen and U.S. persons and companies are banned from commercial transactions with them. Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, called Lee’s selection as Hong Kong’s chief “yet another step in the dismantling of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle.”
National Security Law Silences Journalists
Unfortunately, the selection of Lee is hardly the only bad news out of Hong Kong. Reporters without Borders recently released the 2022 edition of the World Press Freedom Index, which assesses the state of journalism in 180 countries and territories.
When this index was first established in 2002, Hong Kong ranked 18. Twenty years later, Hong Kong’s press freedom score has dropped to 148 out of 180, only slightly better than Communist China’s 175 out of 180. Calling Hong Kong once “a bastion of press freedom,” RSF said the city had seen “an unprecedented setback since 2020 when Beijing adopted a National Security Law aimed at silencing independent voices.”
According to RSF, examples of Hong Kong’s deterioration of press freedom include the government’s forceful closure of two major independent local news outlets, Apple Daily and Standard News, in 2021 under the pretext of national security threats. In addition, “numerous smaller-scale media outlets ceased operations” due to increasing legal risks. Dozens of Hong Kong journalists and media personalities have been arrested for “national security” crimes since 2020, and some, including Apple Daily’s publisher Jimmy Lai, are still languishing in prison.
What’s sadder than Hong Kong’s demise as a free society is the silence and indifference from the rest of the world. While activists, corporations, and governments are taking a stand to help Ukraine preserve its democracy and resist Russia’s invasion, very few talk about Hong Kong’s worsening political environment. They have forgotten that Hong Kongers courageously fought for democracy in their city for more than two decades, including the famed “Umbrella Movement” in 2014 and the anti-extradition bill protests in 2019.
There are likely three reasons for this collective silence and indifference to Hong Kong’s deterioration. First, the draconian National Security Law and its broad applications have silenced many people, including those who live abroad, from expressing any support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and activists. People are understandably worried they may have to face the Chinese government’s harsh punishment if they speak up.
Second, the danger Ukraine faces is immediate and highly visual due to Russia’s invasion. Ukraine leaders such as Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelensky have gotten the world’s sympathy by framing Ukraine’s resistance to Russia as a historical fight for democracy.
Hong Kongers didn’t lose their political freedom overnight. It took more than two decades, and people outside of the city have been less alarmed by the gradual corrosion of residents’ liberty.
It is a typical “boiling the frog” syndrome, “the failure to accept, acknowledge, or act against a problematic situation that will gradually increase in severity until it reaches calamitous proportions.” Hong Kongers also have the misfortune that most of their city’s elites, including many government officials, are more willing to sell out the city for fame and fortune than to advocate for people’s political rights.
China Has Weaponized Its Economic Power
Third, foreign governments and businesses have avoided criticizing China over Hong Kong due to economic interests. It is easier to take a stand against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine because Russia’s economy is no bigger than South Korea’s. Other than the energy sector, criticizing Putin or ceasing business operations in Russia hasn’t presented much economic sacrifice for many governments and businesses.
China is the world’s second-largest economy. Many foreign governments and businesses not only count on exporting their goods and services to China’s large consumer market but also rely on China for supplies, from clothes to toys, to solar panels and materials for batteries for electric vehicles. Communist China has long weaponized its economic power to compel foreign governments and businesses to bend their knees and compromise their democratic values. China’s approach is less bloody than Russia’s invasion but still presents a serious threat to democracy.
Hong Kong’s fall from being one of the freest places in the world to merely another city under the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian rule is one of the most tragic events in our lifetime. It’s no less devastating than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If the rest of the world truly cares about defending democratic values, they should speak up and take a stand for Hong Kong, the same way they do now for Ukraine.