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ANDREW COYNE: Hong Kong’s fight for freedom is our fight, too

Hong Kong airport reopens after protests - Reuters

As the people of the world’s freest city fend off being swallowed by one of the world’s most repressive dictatorships, they do so largely alone

A sickening pall of inevitability hangs over the protests in Hong Kong, now in their tenth week. Neither side can afford to back down – the protesters, because their way of life, indeed their very lives, are at stake; the Beijing-backed government, for the precedent it would set, and the hope it would inspire.

As the violence mounts — most of it, to date, on the part of the police, or in some cases the Triad gangs hired to beat and intimidate the protesters — so does the likelihood of mass bloodshed, a reprise of the Tienanmen massacre of 30 years ago. Some of the protesters may indeed hope to tempt Beijing into such an appalling overstep; however horrific the prospect, or improbable their chances, it is difficult to blame them.

For as the people of the world’s freest city fend off being swallowed by one of the world’s most repressive dictatorships, they do so largely alone. Fifty-six years ago, when West Berlin faced a similar threat from the Eastern Bloc, the democratic world rallied to its cause – because its cause, they knew, was their cause. President John F. Kennedy went to Berlin to give his great, moving “ich bin ein Berliner” speech, declaring before the world that “all free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin.” These were not just words — it was NATO policy to defend the city with arms, if necessary.

And today? The president of the United States refers to the protesters as “rioters,” the Beijing-approved term. Should President Xi Jinping decide to suppress the unrest in Hong Kong by force, he seems to be signalling, he would be willing to look the other way — perhaps for reasons of state (what are a few hundred or even thousand lives if it helps close a trade deal?), or perhaps just out of his habitual admiration for dictators. But the government of Canada — 300,000 of whose citizens, let us remember, live in the city — has been scarcely more robust in their defence; neither have most western governments.

That Hong Kongers have pressed on, regardless — two million of them, more than a quarter of the city’s population, filling the streets in early June — is a testament as much to the gravity of the situation as to anything else. Their struggle is heroic, yes; doomed, probably; but mostly it is unavoidable. They simply have no choice.

It isn’t only or even mostly about the extradition bill, introduced in the city-state’s legislature in April, which would have exposed Hong Kongers who offended Beijing’s sense of what was right and proper — say, by publicly denouncing its abuses — to the threat of being spirited away to the mainland, there to disappear into the fog of the Chinese judicial system. What is illegal but not infrequent now — Beijing’s agents are not known for their punctiliousness about the law — would become both legal and, presumably, frequent.

That the bill has been shelved, but not withdrawn, is not, therefore, the issue. It is, rather, the broader campaign of subversion the Chinese government has mounted against the freedoms Hong Kongers were promised they would keep under the 1984 agreement by which control of the territory passed from Great Britain to China — the principle known as “one country, two systems,” supposedly to remain in force for 50 years after the handover in 1997.

It is true that Hong Kong, for all the liberty its citizens otherwise enjoyed, was never a democracy under British rule. Nevertheless the agreement stipulated, as part of the territory’s Basic Law (constitution), that both the executive and the legislature would “ultimately” be elected by universal suffrage. Instead, half the legislature are elected from so-called “functional constituencies” — professional or other special-interest groups, generally viewed as being under the thumb of Beijing — while the chief executive is chosen by a 1,200-member “election committee,” again under Beijing’s control.

By the time of the 2014 “Umbrella Movement” protests it was clear to most Hong Kongers that this would never change: the promise of democracy was a sham. The extradition bill revealed the regime’s promises with regard to their legal freedoms to be of similar worth, and the rest with them: the “high degree of autonomy” the territory was supposed to enjoy, its “unchanged” social and economic systems, and so forth. As long as the odds must seem, Hong Kongers plainly feel they have nothing to lose.

So, with the People’s Liberation Army warming up in the bullpen, the question becomes: how should the democratic world react, if the worst happens? We know how it will react, most likely: with the same irresolution and indifference as it has until now, only perhaps with a few more finely worded statements of regret. This would be not only moral cowardice, but a kind of surrender; it would betray not just Hong Kongers’ interests, but our own.

For Hong Kong’s fight is our fight. Its people are on the front lines of what is ever more clearly a global struggle, a new Cold War. China may not be threatening the West with nuclear annihilation, as of old, but it is very plainly bent on exporting its values, if not its system of government, to other countries. Sovereign Chinese soil though Hong Kong may now be, the democratic world retains an interest in its defence, if not by military means than by every means short of it.

A military assault on Hong Kong would have to spell, at a minimum, a cataclysmic reset in China’s relations with the rest of the world: the severest sanctions, an end to the One China policy, a renewed commitment to the defence of Taiwan, the works. If there is any chance of averting such a dire event, it is best to say so now. Would China be deterred? Who can say? In the end, like the protesters in Hong Kong, we have no choice.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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