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Why the fate of three Hong Kong activists matters to the future of global democracy | Trudy Rubin

While Trump praises Xi Jinping, the Chinese president crushes mainland dissenters and tries to curb democracy in Hong Kong.

From front left, Hong Kong activist Nathan Law, Joshua Wong and Alex Chow were found guilty of leading or encouraging an illegal rally in September 2014 that kicked off the demonstrations known as the “Umbrella Movement.”
From front left, Hong Kong activist Nathan Law, Joshua Wong and Alex Chow were found guilty of leading or encouraging an illegal rally in September 2014 that kicked off the demonstrations known as the “Umbrella Movement.”Read moreVincent Yu / AP

When President Trump sits down with Chinese President Xi Jinping, you can bet there's one topic he won't be raising: Xi's unrelenting campaign to repress any dissenting voices. Not just on the Chinese mainland but in quasi-democratic Hong Kong.

In times past, U.S. presidents have raised human rights concerns in private with Chinese leaders. Those days are gone (Trump praised Xi just hours after jailed Chinese Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo died in a state hospital). One can only hope Trump mentions the case of Liu's widow, Liu Xia, who is still under house arrest.

But the case I'm sure he won't mention, and which I find especially poignant, is Beijing's effort to crush three young Hong Kong democracy activists who had the gall to challenge the new Mao in Beijing. All students in their 20s, Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow were tossed in jail in April on trumped-up charges meant to dissuade other pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong.

I interviewed Wong and Law in Hong Kong a year ago, and was awed by their courage and determination to resist Beijing's efforts to undercut Hong Kong elections.  Although the three are out on appeal, Beijing appears determined to bankrupt them with legal costs, bar them from running for political office, and sentence them to more jail time. And China will no doubt pressure supposedly independent Hong Kong courts to fall in line.

The story of this pro-democracy troika is especially important because they set an example for those who despair of democracy's future worldwide. They are unwilling to despair and believe their Sisyphean struggle is worth suffering.

"It's a long-term battle for us," Wong told me. "We are fighting against the largest communist dictatorship in the world. We hope for the best, prepare for the worst."

To understand this trio's struggle, a little history is needed. Hong Kong, with its fabulous harbor and skyscrapers set against Victoria Peak, was handed back to China by its British colonial masters in 1997. But Beijing agreed to let the city maintain many democratic freedoms for 50 years — including legislative elections, an independent judiciary, and a free press — under the rubric "one country, two systems."

Beijing has been steadily eroding those freedoms — squeezing educators, the judiciary, and the media. But it was Beijing's advance rejection of fully democratic elections for Hong Kong's chief executive set for 2017 that brought tens of thousands of students and democracy activists to occupy the streets for 79 days in 2014.

The then-17-year-old high school student leader Wong led the so-called Umbrella Revolution. You may have seen the photos of 100,000 people sitting under an endless canopy of umbrellas, in pouring rain, braving tear gas. "Our movement was not just young people, but also middle-class professionals and the elderly," Wong told me.

Beijing refused to budge. But Wong and fellow activists refused to give up, moving into electoral politics, fielding candidates for the Legislative Council. They won an astonishing 30 seats out of the 70-member council (which is rigged by Beijing-enforced rules so that activists can't take a majority). Six of them were under age 40.

Law, at 23, was the youngest elected member of the council. Wong was too young to run.

Of course, Beijing struck back, ousting several of the younger lawmakers, including Law, for allegedly failing to properly swear a required oath of allegiance to Beijing. In addition, Wong, Law, and Chow have been found guilty of "unlawful assembly" on charges dating back to the Umbrella movement protests. And Beijing is pressing Hong Kong courts to give them an even tougher jail sentence.

I can't help remembering the boyish Law, looking like a teenager, standing in his legislative office in December in front of a window overlooking Hong Kong's harbor and telling me how he had the strength to continue. "I'm not blindly optimistic," he said. "But it is important to recognize that we are fighting a long battle and everything we do gains a little for the future. I am not afraid of being defeated as long as we have the courage to continue the war."

Law, like his colleagues, comes from a family of modest means. His mother, who raised three sons alone by working as a janitor, told the New York Times of her fear for his future. She remembered the Cultural Revolution and urged her son to avoid politics. She recalls his answer: "If everyone is selfish, society will not change."

So, as many Americans fret about the future of our democracy, I hope we can summon a fraction of these young Hong Kongers' faith in the democratic idea and their perseverance when confronting challenges.

When I met Joshua Wong in Washington a year ago, he had an argument for Trump. "Apart from the moral question, it is also necessary for businesses and investors to care about Hong Kong because it is the most important financial center in Asia," he told me. "How Beijing puts aside the rule of law and independence of the courts in Hong Kong affects business interests and the stock markets."

I don't know if this argument would impress Trump. But as Trump heaps adulation on the autocratic Xi, Americans should pay attention to how Hong Kong courts treat this pro-democracy trio. I only wish we could do more.