At a time when democracy seems to be losing ground around the globe, even in the United States, one of the saddest losses is Hong Kong.

The former British colony became a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China in 1997. China guaranteed that it could maintain its own economic and political systems for 50 years—a “one country, two systems” arrangement.

However, Hong Kongers proved to be enthusiastic democrats, too enthusiastic for the Chinese government, and it has increasingly dominated the region’s governance. What democracy Hong Kong inherited from the British Empire has been completely ground down by big brother in Beijing.

That was made clear last week when a panel of judges, hand-picked by Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader, convicted 14 democracy activists of conspiracy to commit subversion, adding to the dozens of others who now pass their time in prison. The judges took advantage of the sweeping powers of a national security law imposed by Beijing to quash dissent.

The activists, most of whom have spent at least the last three years in detention, could be sentenced to life imprisonment. A generation of democracy activists has become a generation of political prisoners. Or refugees.

The collapse of hopes for democracy in Hong Kong echoes the collapse of a brief bright moment of hope for democracy in China itself. Thirty-five years ago, a growing democracy movement was extinguished with the massacre of hundreds of student demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. What a dream that was—democracy for what was the world’s most populous country. Now even in a sliver of the country, Hong Kong, the hope is dead.

Democracy remains reasonably well-entrenched in those countries that experienced the Enlightenment, especially those formerly part of the British Empire, but struggles in most other parts of the world. An exception is East Asia where democracy has found a vigorous home, in places such as South Korea, Taiwan and Japan. Hong Kong was for a post-colonial moment included in that group, but has succumbed to the terminal grip of the Chinese Communist Party.

Nor does the threat stop at Hong Kong. Chinese President Xi Jinping sets his sights firmly on Taiwan, claiming that “the reunification of the motherland is a historical inevitability,” while reserving the right to use force to achieve the inevitable.

Xi is tightening the party’s grip on his society generally, sliding the country back into the bad old days of Chairman Mao. The people of Hong Kong, particularly its youth, put up a courageous effort to escape the fate of the Chinese masses. It is tragic indeed to see them transition from colonialism to dictatorship rather than achieve their dream of transitioning from colonialism to democracy. Such are our times.

The loss of Hong Kong to democracy is a small loss compared to what is threatened south of our border, a loss that was inconceivable only a few short years ago but now appears entirely possible. Nonetheless, it still means that 7,498,100 people will be living under dictatorship rather than in freedom, and that’s 7,498,100 tragedies.

2 thoughts on “The Hong Kong tragedy”
  1. While I share your concern about the loss of democratic rights in Hong Kong, it is difficult for me to view it in isolation from a broader pattern including many supposed bastions of democracy. How is this a “tragedy” while we turn a blind eye to Republican efforts in the U.S. to take away voting rights for between two and three million Americans, coupled with the removal of voting booths in predominantly black areas. Our standards must be high, but we should avoid double standards that demonize perceived enemies while failing to call out other “tragedies” closer to home.

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