Protests that started nearly four years ago in Hong Kong have all but died down. China, however, has gained power and influence in the region with its national security law and aggression towards Taiwan.
“Throughout this century, Beijing has been trying to impose ever-tighter controls on Hong Kong. And throughout this century, the people of Hong Kong have resisted,” said Chinese expert Gordon Chang.
Demonstrations began in 2019 to protest legislation that would allow criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial. The Fugitive Criminal Ordinance bill would allow people, including foreigners, to have their cases heard in courts controlled by the Communist Party.
“The protests that followed the extradition bill in 2019 were a watershed,” Chang said.
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In the summer of 2019, the riots made headlines around the world. Millions of people took to the streets to protest China’s actions. Former Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam eventually suspended the extradition bill. Protests continued calling for her to step down as Beijing pushed forward with a new idea to crack down on protesters in the name of national security.
“China’s national security law, imposed in Hong Kong in mid-2020, has rightly been called the end of the law,” Chang said. “That legislation is so vague, it gives Beijing the power to do whatever it wants, and Beijing has fully implemented that law in ways that have ended freedom in Hong Kong.”
The national security law went into effect just before midnight on the eve of the anniversary of its handover from British to Chinese rule. Chinese leaders said it was needed to control growing protests.
“I think there were about 2 million people at one point, which is… unbelievable,” Sebastien Lai said. “They essentially used the national security law combined with the stringent COVID restrictions they have put in place in Hong Kong to put down… the protests.”
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Sebastien’s father is one of the victims of the new law. Jimmy Lai has been in prison since December 2020 for his role in the pro-democracy movement.
“The last time I saw my father was at the end of 2020,” Sebastien said. “So, I haven’t been back to Hong Kong since then, unfortunately.”
Hundreds were arrested under the National Security Act, including Jimmy Lai. He is accused of having participated in protests. Others stem from his own tabloid, Apple Daily, which was often critical of China. Eventually his business was raided and shut down.
“I think a lot of people were surprised how quickly everything happened. Once the national security law was passed in late 2020, they started mass crackdowns, arresting many people,” Sebastien said. “At that time, we had about 900 people working [at] Daily Apple. During the first crackdown, 200 police entered the office building, took people’s laptops and hard drives, and stopped people from touching their phones.”
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Sebastien said police returned for a second time and even more officers raided the tabloids’ offices.
“As the brave journalists continued to publish, they sent 500 people. And that was the end of it. By then they had already arrested my father and many of his colleagues. Hear these sad stories which obviously would never have happened in Hong Kong before “Sebastian said. “Journalists would stay up until 6am because that’s when the police are knocking on your door and telling you you’re a person of interest.”
Jimmy Lai’s national security trial is scheduled for December. His lawyers recently tried to dismiss the trial, arguing that he would be heard by three judges approved by Hong Kong’s leader rather than a jury. China originally promised Hong Kong trials by jury when it rejoined China, but the national security law now allows trials without a jury.
“Right now, Hong Kong is telling the world that they want to go back to being a financial center and they are [for] Rule of law and freedom of speech. Actions speak louder than words, and actions say they don’t,” Sebastien said. “While those people are in prison and while those people are being treated unfairly by the legal system, there is no way Hong Kong can say which is still a financial center.”
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Jimmy Lai faces life in prison. He is among nearly 1,500 other known political prisoners held in Hong Kong.
“We have seen the number of arrests increase in Hong Kong since the 2019 protests, but certainly with the imposition of the national security law in the following year, there has been an increasing number of arrests,” Chang said. “We’re not sure we know the full numbers on this because there are reports of people being secretly detained.”
US lawmakers have called Hong Kong’s wake-up call Taiwan. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was among a group of House members who recently met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in California.
“I remember the promises China made in Hong Kong that they can maintain their own version of democracy,” McCarthy said. “They have disavowed this. We have seen them shut down newspapers and press freedoms that have existed for decades.”
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Others have compared the actions to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
“After the fall of Hong Kong and Putin and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Taiwan is very nervous and it should be.” Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said on “Special Report.”
Sebastien Lai now lives in Taiwan and says the islanders share concern about China’s growing influence in the region.
“Originally the one-country-two system was Hong Kong, but it was also something they tried to sell to Taiwan,” Sebastien said. “I think once Hong Kong was cracked down, everyone in Taiwan could have realized very quickly that it was no longer a viable choice.”
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China has less influence in Taiwan than in Hong Kong. US positions on regions also differ. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the One China Policy only acknowledges Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China. The United States disagrees with Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over Taipei. It also assesses that the island is not an independent and sovereign state.
“Although the United States does not recognize Taiwan, however, a number of countries do,” Chang said. “It’s a vibrant democracy. And it’s, of course, in the US interest to protect all democracies, especially one as important as Taiwan.”
The US sees Hong Kong as part of China, but with some conditions. According to the State Department, US policy maintains that Hong Kong is an independent customs and economic territory.
“China is attacking not only our democracy, but democracies in general. So, we have to defend this principle of self-government, whether in Hong Kong, Taiwan or the United States,” Chang said. “Until [Chinese President] Xi Jinping rules China, Hong Kong is lost. But the people of Hong Kong have shown their resistance. They have a separate identity from China. And one day, and that day probably won’t be soon, but one day Hong Kong, I think, will govern itself.”
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The United States and allies are helping to hold China accountable for its actions towards Hong Kong and Taiwan. Jimmy Lai met with lawmakers during his 2019 trip to the United States. He called for support against China’s aggression. His son, Sebastien, recently met with those same lawmakers to continue the fight for democracy in Hong Kong and freedom for his father.
“International pressure is showing and shedding light on these cases, on my father, and the Hong Kong story is key,” Sebastien said. “We’ve really seen Hong Kong react very strongly when we talk about… this lie they’re telling the world.”