You never think about the last time you’ll visit a place you love. But I now realize my last time in Hong Kong might have been in December. I was in Hong Kong in late 2019 as a part of a joint delegation with the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law to report on rule of law challenges following the summer of discontent.
While in Hong Kong, we were trailed, our photos were taken and our “secret mission” was splashed across Beijing-controlled media. Beijing later announced sanctions against NDI. Our report made such wild recommendations to Beijing and Hong Kong leaders as “reaffirm the one country, two systems framework’” and “negotiate with Hong Kongers over their legitimate interests.” Beijing’s response? That we should be condemned by all Chinese people and “would pay the price.”
Since then, I have watched as a Beijing-driven crackdown targeted pro-democracy activists, including my own friends, with arrest and other threats. After living and working in Hong Kong, I became a permanent resident. It became home. I always assumed my partner and I would go back, maybe even to live again. I would be able to visit friends and places dear to me. I would get to go to my favorite congee and milk tea shops. If the national security law recently approved by China’s rubber-stamp parliament in Beijing is enacted, that might not be true for me or many others. The new law would give Beijing the power to formally do what it has already been doing — bar entry into Hong Kong for those who seemingly crossed a line in Beijing’s sand.
This new law means that all of the parts of the Hong Kong system that I and so many others love could be dismantled. As is the case in mainland China, public opinion polls and elections will be made illegal, political debate will be curtailed or self-censored, the world’s largest annual June 4th Vigil would disappear, newspapers and bookstores shuttered and foreign journalists deported.
In the past, I could shrug this off, knowing that the bombast didn’t really match the action. Beijing has heightened its rhetoric against pro-democracy forces and groups such as NDI for years — especially during and after Hong Kong’s organic Umbrella Movement. This is different, Beijing seems to want to follow through on its bluster and deal a deafening blow against Hong Kong’s democracy and rule Hong Kong by direct edict from Beijing. For all in Hong Kong, getting followed by state security might become the norm.
Something about Hong Kong’s fundamental freedoms, and international reporting on Hong Kong’s limited democracy, scares Beijing so much that it feels the need to destroy it. Why now? What about Hong Kong scares the leaders in Beijing? It could be that Beijing has come to realize it cannot win the war of ideas in Hong Kong. Having lost the hearts and minds of Hong Kongers, Beijing has decided to resort to rule by law instead of the rule of law promised in the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The pathway forward for Hong Kong is the control that we’ve seen in mainland China for years.
Authoritarian regimes the world over maintain power by controlling their populations through increasingly repressive means. Often, in order to justify such repression, those regimes perpetuate narratives about internal stability as well as foreign interventionist forces. This has been especially true for the Chinese Communist Party. As such, Beijing will need to continue to make a strawman of “foreign forces” such as myself, NDI and our sister organizations in the democracy and human rights community while, in parallel, eroding democracy in the name of stability.
It doesn't have to be this way. For over two decades, Hong Kong and Beijing have both prospered under “One Country, Two Systems.” There is a way forward that promotes peace, economic growth, stability — and respects the rights of Hong Kongers. In the long run, no move by Beijing will be able to squash the pro-democracy resolve of the people of Hong Kong.
I stand by the recommendations we made to urge Beijing and Hong Kong to take them onboard. I also stand with the people of Hong Kong and my friends there who will continue to have their and their kids’ lives tied to the fortunes of the city and, as shown, have the resolve to demand their rights.
Beijing cannot tag Hong Kongers as “foreign interventionists.” The bipartisan support for Hong Kong in Congress as well as the growing international solidarity for the city is heartening. My hope is that the global community continues to #StandwithHongKong and finds ways to bolster the remaining civic space promised to the people of Hong Kong.
Adam Nelson is a senior adviser at the National Democratic Institute.