Remember Maidan? In 2014, demonstrators in the heart of the Ukrainian capital died in blood-stained European flags, shot by the regime’s snipers as they called for dignity, legality, and liberty – political principles that the pampered citizens of the European Union take for granted. Those ideals rolled in great waves from the East, but broke on the rocks of apathy, selfishness, and xenophobia inside the EU.

Now the same thing is happening in Hong Kong. The people of the former British colony are demonstrating in huge numbers against attempts by the mainland regime to chip away at their freedoms, particularly the rule of law. These were guaranteed in the Chinese-British joint declaration of 1984, and supposed to be increased, not diminished, after the handover of the territory to indirect rule by Beijing in 1997. But the promise of “one country, two systems” has proved hollow. China, through the supposedly autonomous authorities in Hong Kong, has tightened its grip. The latest infringement – which has sparked huge protests – is an extradition law that would allow the authorities to send people to face trial in mainland China. “Trial” is perhaps not the right word: “sentencing tribunal” would be better. The Chinese system works like this: defendants are kept in jail until they confess. Then the punishment continues.

I am gloomy about the protesters’ short-term prospects. The regime in Beijing, and its local proxies, hold almost all the cards. The authorities can arrest individual protesters and prosecute them for colonial-era public-order offenses, which can mean many years in jail. The People’s Liberation Army (which should more accurately be called the “Army for the Repression of the People”) has a large garrison in Hong Kong. Official propaganda took care to feature pictures of its tanks during its recent maneuvers outside the territory.

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As in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and other countries struggling with the legacy of communist rule, politics can go backwards as well as forwards. It may be that Hong Kong’s immediate fate is to be like East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, or Poland in 1981 – the victim of exemplary repression. In the long run, this destroys the oppressor’s claim to legitimacy, and stiffens resentment and resistance. That is little comfort to those suffering in the short term.

While waiting for history’s eventual verdict, outsiders cannot dodge responsibility. We failed Ukraine. We could have done more to publicize its case. We could have accelerated its integration into the European Union and NATO. We could have strengthened its defenses. Most of all, we could have imposed a real penalty on the Kremlin for its invasion of another country.

Ukraine paid a heavy price for our complacency, cowardice, and cynicism. But the country survived. Perhaps the greatest damage from our inaction was to us. Our institutions proved to be ineffective. Our politicians lacked leadership. Our public opinion proved blinkered. All that showed other countries – Russia and China – that we lack solidarity and resilience.

We should not fail Hong Kong now. The issue is not necessarily about joining Donald Trump’s trade war with China. The U.S. case on intellectual property, subsidies, and other issues is strong. But allies rightly fear that their interests may just be chips on the negotiating table once the end-game starts. We need to stand up to China on values. These go beyond short-term economics to repression: in Hong Kong, Tibet, Taiwan, southern Mongolia, East Turkestan, (home to the Uighurs); and of human rights and religious freedom everywhere. That stance will be good for the people suffering under the Chinese regime. Most of all it will be good for us.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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