As Senate Republicans were blocking a bill to expand voting rights for Americans, the Chinese government was destroying Apple Daily, the pro-democracy tabloid that campaigned for greater voting rights in Hong Kong.
The comparison is worth making, because of the way China has systematically shredded Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms over the last year. Under cover of a new national security law, and COVID-19, Beijing has diminished voting rights, while arresting pro-democracy activists and muzzling the media.
This should be a sharp reminder of the current threats to America’s democratic institutions. Our threats come, not from Beijing but from within — from GOP leaders undermining the concept of free and fair elections in an effort to rig the system in their favor.
But a look at the tragedy that befell Apple Daily should remind us we must keep fighting to preserve and protect the election freedoms we are lucky enough to still possess.
Apple Daily’s owner, Jimmy Lai, fought to preserve democracy even though he was a midsize David against a huge Beijing Goliath. He knew he might wind up – as he has done – in jail.
Yet even Lai never expected Hong Kong’s near-democracy to be crushed so swiftly – nor his newspaper to be shuttered.
A wealthy clothing tycoon, he founded Apple Daily in 1995 as a tabloid that combined scandal with anticorruption investigations of local officials, and with constant attacks on China’s Communist Party. Rather than enjoy his riches, and keep his mouth closed like most Hong Kong businessmen, he fought for voting rights.
The scrappy Apple Daily, one of the most widely read papers in Hong Kong, constantly campaigned for expanded suffrage. Beijing had promised this expansion in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, when the territory was returned by Britain to China in 1997. The law included gradual expansion to universal suffrage for choosing Hong Kong’s chief executive, a promise Beijing kept delaying and now has junked.
When I met Lai in November 2019 at his airy, sunlit home on a Hong Kong hillside, his paper was a major supporter of the huge pro-democracy protests that had exploded over a proposed law to allow extradition of Hong Kongers to be tried in mainland Chinese courts. Hong Kong democrats prize their independent courts, which operate under a British common law system, not Communist Party control.
Lai was (presciently) worried that some students had turned violent, out of frustration, and that Beijing would use this as an excuse for a crackdown. “I have written that we can’t take the law into our own hands,” he said.
But the basic problem, he went on, was that Beijing had no grasp of why pro-democrats wanted their freedoms. “Rule of law is a basic Western value,” he said, over tea and biscuits. “Beijing looks at this through the prism of very different values. Their idea is to suppress the violence, not to solve the problem.
“They don’t see why what we ask for is so important. If 1.4 billion can live peacefully under more authoritarian rule, and we have semi-autonomy and cause much more trouble.”
However, he was optimistic that Hong Kong democrats could advance toward broader suffrage via local elections in fall 2019. “You don’t get universal suffrage without long-term resistance,” he insisted. And indeed, the local elections were a triumph for the pro-democracy camp over pro-Beijing parties, creating momentum for another victory in an upcoming legislative election.
Unnerved by democracy’s advance, Beijing postponed the legislative elections for a year, and has now arrested almost all pro-democracy leaders. Where young people once studied the Basic Law, they now must take courses in “patriotic education.”
And Beijing jailed Lai last year under the new security law. Earlier this month, hundreds of police officers raided the paper’s newsroom, seizing computers, freezing its assets and arresting top editors and one of its columnists. The newspaper was finally forced to close Wednesday.
All this makes Jimmy Lai’s words even more important to Americans, especially those who have forgotten what democracy (with a small d) means.
“Obviously beyond the [U.S.] trade war with China will be a long-term conflict with China, a rivalry of opposing values,” he told me. “Hong Kong is fighting the first battle in this Cold War because we share the same values.”
He urged that Americans stand up for those values, as an exemplar for others who espoused them for their own people. “America should not be ashamed of its moral authority, of its values. Express them.”
And he described how he had visited the beaches at Normandy, saying those beaches symbolized “the America we look up to, that fought for freedom.”
As Lai sits in prison, his newspaper silenced, facing a possible life term, his example should remind us of pro-democrats in Hong Kong who still hope for America to set a democratic example, even if it can’t rescue them from despots in the short run.
In recent years, we have failed miserably to set that example. The stain of the GOP Big Lie and covering up of Jan. 6 still overshadows any U.S. effort to pose as a democratic model. But if Jimmy Lai could continue the fight for democratic values against odds that dwarf ours, how can we do any less?