Hong Kong entrepreneur and journalist Jimmy Lai is serving time in a Chinese jail for his outspoken opposition to the communist oppression of his home city. His is an inspiring and frightening story—one whose final chapter remains to be written—and it’s movingly told in The Hong Konger, a film produced by our friends at the Michigan-based Acton Institute. On Thursday evening, I was honored to share the film with Goldwater friends, and to discuss it afterward with one of the film’s producers, Eric Kohn, and Andrew Bremberg, president of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.
Hong Kong consists of about 430 square miles: the island of Hong Kong itself plus part of the mainland called the “New Territories.” That’s smaller than the city of Phoenix, yet its population is about seven and a half million people—roughly equivalent to Arizona’s. In 1842, China’s emperor signed a treaty granting Britain possession of the island “in perpetuity.” The treaty was followed in 1860 by a second treaty reiterating the “perpetual” claim, and then, at the turn of the century, by a 99-year lease of the New Territories.
In the 1990s, when that lease approached its end, Chinese dictator Deng Xiaoping demanded not just the return of the New Territories, but also the island, on the grounds that China’s emperor had only signed the 1842 and 1860 treaties under “pressure,” having been defeated in the Opium Wars. This argument was silly—many treaties are signed under the “pressure” of military defeat, but that hardly renders them unenforceable. But that didn’t matter; Britain’s government acceded to the communists’ demands, and handed over Hong Kong and the New Territories in 1997, after obtaining promises that China would respect Hong Kong’s autonomy for at least another 50 years.
Unsurprisingly, those promises proved worthless. China immediately began increasing its control over the city, cracking down on freedom of speech and protest. The result, two years ago, was a series of enormous protests, some of which drew as many as 2 million people, where residents stood up for their freedoms against the world’s largest totalitarian state.
Among them was Lai, whose newspaper, Apple Daily, was the only pro-democracy Chinese-language daily newspaper. Lai started out in life with nothing; his family fled to Hong Kong in the 1960s, just at the beginning of the economic miracle that economic liberty and private property rights brought to the city while under British rule. Lai worked his way up from the floors of the garment factories to owning Giordano, a world-renowned clothing company. But when he branched out into journalism, he began to clash with communist authorities, particularly after he spoke out in support of the Tiananmen Square protestors in 1989. The Tiananmen movement ended in a horrific bloodbath when communist dictators slaughtered pro-democracy activists—an incident the Chinese government is anxious to erase from memory. One reason Lai and his Hong Kong friends have been targeted by the People’s Republic is their unwillingness to allow that to happen. When Lai participated in an unauthorized memorial service on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, he was arrested—a tale powerfully told in The Hong Konger.
Lai’s bravery is moving enough—but it may soon be necessary to show even more resolve, as China’s dictatorship sets its eyes on its next target: Taiwan. It’s an open secret that China wishes to invade and conquer that island on or before 2049, the centennial anniversary of the communist revolution. But China’s aggressive actions toward Taiwan should be recognized for what they are: an unjustifiable act of hostility toward a peaceable neighbor. Taiwan has never been ruled over by the People’s Republic of China. It is not a “breakaway province” or a “seceding state.” It is and always has been a separate entity, a democratic ally of the United States.
Whether western democracies will tolerate a Chinese conquest of Taiwan…well, we can hope that we never find out. In the meantime, the lessons of Hong Kong are crucial, not just for the future of Asia, but for the future of freedom everywhere.
“Hong Kong itself was filled with flesh and breath, with lives, with so many of those lives still holding memories that remain golden and kind and loving and free,” the late Bruce Herschensohn wrote in his final book, A Profile of Hong Kong. “The skyline remains spectacular, the hotels are still luxurious, the streets are as crowded as ever, and the shopping centers are unmanageably chaotic. The visuals are still magnificent, while most visitors have no way to know the chronology of the invisible. [As] Anson Chan had warned…Hong Kong could become ‘just another Chinese city.’”
Freedom—the key to Hong Kong’s “economic miracle”—cannot be held in one’s hand; it cannot be weighed or measured. Yet it remains the most precious of all possessions—and the most important for us to defend.
Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Legal Affairs at the Goldwater Institute.
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