People around the world watched the closure recently of Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s last major independent news outlet, bearing solemn witness to the death-throws of democratic impulses in this once free city. Whereas two years ago the streets were flooded with millions of Hong Kong residents protesting Beijing’s actions to control the city, open opposition has now been silenced, with activists locked up and the heavy curtain of the Chinese Communist Party’s new national security law hanging thickly over this erstwhile hub of international commerce and free speech.
Theoretically, a territory long governed under the rule of law with a foundation in human rights — with free speech, free press, and independent judiciary at its core — should have withstood the onslaught from the Beijing regime. How then have we arrived at this place? It is imperative that U.S. and Western leaders do an immediate deep dive into how this has occurred — especially after years of promoting democracy abroad — and refocus their policy objectives and methods, to stem further destruction of democratic allies and the advance of this dictatorship.
The fate not only of Hong Kong but of other democratic allies lies in the balance. Hong Kong is essentially a critical test case for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), especially with its eye on such sights as Taiwan. As much as the West is watching Beijing, the CCP is watching the West — in particular the US — waiting for a response to its more audacious moves to calculate the potential costs of future plans.
A U.S. response must consider those issues that matter most to the CCP: financial assets and international standing. There is much on both fronts that can be done. To begin with, the U.S. should shore up its coalition of democracies to issue penetrating, far-reaching sanctions against the CCP. Sanctions should hit relevant Hong Kong leaders and institutions including the banks responsible for assisting the CCP in freezing accounts and assets of Next Digital Limited, the parent company of Apple Daily; the Hong Kong government logistics bureau responsible for government purchases; and the National Security Department of the Hong Kong Police.
Sanctions should also target the CCP at the highest echelons of its leadership in Beijing, and prevent the party as an organization from accessing the U.S. financial system. Leaders often park their personal wealth — as well as their families — in democratic countries, giving Western nations the means to freeze assets and deny visas as significant tools in curbing behavior. With no exchangeable currency of its own, the CCP organization is entirely beholden to Western financial systems — and U.S. currency in particular — to continue its operations abroad. Cutting off this source of wealth and power sends a clear, unequivocal message to the regime that it cannot run roughshod over international rules and agreements and continue to commit crimes against humanity with impunity.
Furthermore, the U.S. and its allies should isolate the CCP from international institutions such as the UN (where the regime has a history of vote-buying) and boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics and other international events. The idea of collaborating — even on large, global issues — with this dictatorship which has been shown to be committing genocide against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, is outdated and immoral. The coronavirus, the critical origins of which remain obfuscated by Beijing’s controlling hand, stands as yet another devastating example of what to expect from cooperation with this authoritarian regime.
A broader China policy for the U.S. administration must also counteract the CCP’s rhetorical attempts to invalidate American democracy by pointing to political and social tensions as evidence that the U.S. system is a failure. The CCP often co-opts democratic language and, under the guise of cultural sensitivity, shuts down free speech not only in China and Hong Kong but in the U.S. through its proxies. It should be clear — despite the CCP’s propaganda efforts — that the struggles of American society are those of a nation that, over time, strives — through exposure of truths — to improve. Compare this narrative to that of a country ruled by tyranny, where truth is banned, buried, and denied.
U.S. leaders must uphold the universal values that continue to make America a beacon of hope for so many in far off places, instead of trying to work with a regime that has no intention whatsoever of reciprocating. This means the U.S. and its allies need to make human rights and democratic values — which all people want, especially those living under dictatorships — a priority in every interaction with Chinese officials.
We must be clear that the danger from this dictatorial regime now extends far beyond China’s borders, threatening the well-being of not only the Chinese people but our free way of life in America. The West cannot lose the battle against authoritarianism, and it will not, provided that it stands firm.
If we believe that the CCP is carrying out crimes against humanity in Xinjiang; if we believe that the rights of the citizens of Hong Kong have been arbitrarily and unlawfully stripped away despite public outcry; if we believe that the CCP is not sharing information on the origins of the coronavirus that has now taken over 3 million lives worldwide; if we believe that the CCP has designs on the U.S.’s democratic ally, Taiwan; then it is imperative that the West take immediate action in response to the CCP’s takeover of Hong Kong to stem the advancement of this authoritarian power. CCP leadership is watching closely.
Chen Guangcheng is a Chinese civil rights lawyer and activist and a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at The Catholic University of America.