HONG KONG — The masked men who recently tossed firebombs at Jimmy Lai’s home targeted one of this city’s foremost democracy advocates. Lai, a 71-year-old media billionaire, calls this summer’s ongoing protest “a martyrdom movement” and “a last-straw movement.” It has an intensity and dynamic that bewilders the protesters’ opponents in Beijing and in Hong Kong’s Beijing-obedient city administration.
Today’s mostly young protesters will be middle-aged in 2047, at the expiration of the 50-year agreement that ostensibly accords Hong Kong protected status as an island of freedom. Beijing attempted to whittle away that status with a proposed 2003 law against “subversion.” And by devaluing suffrage by the 2014 requirement that candidates for the chief executive receive approval from a Beijing-loyal committee. And by this year’s extradition bill that would have facilitated sweeping Hong Kongers into the maw of China’s opaque criminal-justice system.
Monday’s New York Times carried a full-page ad paid for by “the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.” The ad said: “We are resolutely committed to ‘One Country, Two Systems’ which provides the constitutional guarantee for Hong Kong’s continued development and success as a free and open society.” The ad pledged “dialogue to talk through differences and look for common ground with no preconditions.”
But the “one country, two systems” formulation, agreed to in 1997, when British authority ended, as a 50-year framework for Hong Kong’s relations with the PRC, is an inherently menacing precondition. And Beijing’s consistently sinister behavior reveals a determination to incrementally nullify “one nation, two systems” by reducing Hong Kong to just another jurisdiction wholly subservient to China’s deepening tyranny.
For Leninists such as Xi Jinping wielding a party-state, nothing is more important than the party’s unchallenged primacy. The party is, Lai says, “detached from reality” and “will always make the wrong decision” as it tries to become “the most absolute dictatorship in human history.”
In 1940, Winston Churchill warned against “a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.” That is China’s aspiration with “digital Leninism,” an application of science through manipulative technologies. With a steadily refined repression apparatus, China’s surveillance state is enmeshing everyone in a “social credit” system. Individuals’ cumulative commercial and social-media transactions give them a score that determines their access to education, housing, clinics, travel and more. Hong Kong is watching this.
“To see what is in front of one’s nose,” wrote George Orwell, “needs a constant struggle.” Belatedly, the world is seeing. The Economist editorialized: “The West’s 25-year bet on China has failed.” The wager was that “market totalitarianism” is an oxymoron.
Embedding China in the global economy supposedly would open it to the softening effects of commerce, which would be solvents of authoritarianism. The West’s tardy but welcome disenchantment is, as the Economist says, “the starkest reversal in modern geopolitics.” If Hong Kong’s heroic refusal to go gentle into Beijing’s dark night is accelerating this disenchantment, the summer of dissent has been this decade’s grandest and most important development.