Opinion

The Hong Kong protesters were right

Don't expect a meaningful U.S. response to Beijing's latest crackdown though

Difficult as it is to imagine now, there was a time when the most important news coming out of China had nothing to do with a virus. A year ago the streets of Hong Kong were full of pink and blue umbrellas and American flags, as the people of the autonomous territory protested an allegedly insignificant extradition bill. At the time it was insisted by some that too much was being made of nothing, that the proposed law would, at most, give Beijing formal permission to do what had long been in its power anyway.

The protesters knew better. If their inchoate feelings of dread had not already been vindicated, they certainly were on Monday when Jimmy Lai, the Hong Kong businessman and publisher, was arrested along with two of his sons and four executives at his media company.

Lai is no one's idea of a radical. He is not a nostalgist for British colonial rule or a Falun Gong cultist, or indeed a Hong Kong dissident in any sense that might be familiar to most Americans. His newspaper, the Apple Daily, is not (despite what recent characterizations in western media are suggesting) especially rabble-rousing. It is a tabloid in the best old-fashioned sense of the word, a popular newspaper that tells its readers the news simply and accurately while more or less representing their worldview. Its editorial position is not anti-Beijing per se, but the moderate one of acknowledging the latter's sovereignty while insisting upon certain limited democratic rights for Hong Kongers.

Lai's position is open to criticism on any number of grounds — incoherence chief among them — but it would be ludicrous to suggest that he is at the vanguard of recent unrest in the territory. His arrest tells us more about current thinking among China's rulers than it does about Lai himself or the political aspirations of the average middle-class citizens of Hong Kong who make up his paper's readership. The quiet "disappearing" of a few quixotic young people, the supposed ringleaders of the ill-fated Umbrella Revolution, would be one thing; if even Lai's middle-of-the-road pro-democracy rhetoric is no longer permissible in Beijing, the fate of Hong Kong is already sealed.

Certainly the United States will be unlikely to do anything about it. The news of Lai's arrest comes amid a round of sanctions and counter-sanctions imposed by Washington and Beijing respectively upon politicians and other officials ranging from Hong Kong's chief executive Carrie Lam to American senators, including Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

On both sides the latest attempts at economic warfare are proving to be roughly as effective as one might expect. Last week Lam mocked the Trump administration for not even getting her address right; Luo Huining, China's chief liaison to Hong Kong, lamented the fact that, since he had no American assets, he might have to donate $100 to Donald Trump's re-election campaign in order to give the Americans something to freeze. Rubio meanwhile tweeted, "Last month #China banned me. Today they sanctioned me. I don't want to be paranoid but I am starting to think they don't like me."

Far more significant are whether Trump follows through on his threat to ban TikTok, the dance GIF spyware app beloved by American teenagers, and what, if anything, comes of the upcoming formal review of our trade relations with China. The president himself has claimed that he is no longer interested in securing a deal of any kind. Would he feel the same way if China chose to retaliate by imposing additional tariffs on American exports? It's unlikely that Trump or any president would be eager to fight a trade war that would have very tangible costs for ordinary Americans on the eve of a close general election, regardless of how necessary it might be.

It seems to me more likely that the status quo will remain. This includes the current sanctions theater, which serves the interests of leaders in both countries. Your own sanctions show your people how tough-minded you are; those of your enemies only demonstrate how toothless and effective their opposition is.

Meanwhile Jimmy Lai and the pink umbrellas and the Mengelian torture chambers of Xinjiang fade further into the horizon.

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