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The Fate Taiwan Can Avert: Cautions from Hong Kong

This blog was authored by Mark P. Lagon Ph.D., Chief Policy Officer at Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Trinity Forum, and Adjunct Professor in the Masters of Science in Foreign Service (MSFS) Program at Georgetown University. He previously has headed Freedom House, Polaris, and the State Department Office on Trafficking in Persons (as Ambassador-At-Large).

Sardonic British man of letters, Hilaire Belloc offers droll fables in verse in Cautionary Tales for Children in 1907. One features George, whose hydrogen-filled balloon’s encounter with a lit candle maims and does in countless colorfully described manor staff. While no laughing matter, Hong Kong offers its own sordid cautionary tale of how democratic freedoms will be squashed if China’s regime is trusted to respect a region or land’s autonomy under its sovereign roof.

As often observed, all Taiwan must do to judge whether China would honor a “one country, two systems” arrangement is to look at Hong Kong. China flagrantly violated its obligations under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Hong Kong Basic Law to respect a special administrative region’s autonomy for 50 years after sovereignty “reverted” from the United Kingdom to China in 1997. The cheeky idiom of 1997, “Chinese take-away,” now has stark resonance.

Two moments when I was Freedom House’s president capture Hong Kong’s meaning for Taiwan. Firstly, in September 2015, I invited to Washington three generations of Hong Kong’s leading proponents of democracy--Democratic Party founder Martin Lee; Lee’s mentee, law professor Benny Tai; and Tai’s mentee, youth activist Joshua Wong. It was at the same time President Obama hosted Xi Jinping in town by design. In the wake of the inspiring yellow umbrella demonstrations in Hong Kong, Freedom House hosted the event at the Newseum – which has sadly met its own demise as symbol of a free press, much like Hong Kong. Even the greatest pessimists about China and Xi would likely not have predicted the conviction and sentencing of Lee, Tai and Wong as veritable political prisoners in the years since.

Just five months later, I was received by the President of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, in Taipei. Here I was the head of a non-profit famous for grading political and civil liberties in nations worldwide – in recent years categorizing China as a low “Not Free” and Taiwan as a solid “Free” (a 89 out of 100 score then in 2016, and a 94 this year.) Ma proceeded to lecture me on the importance of his party’s engagement of Beijing’s leadership in hopes of change in the Chinese regime and cross-strait relations. His tone suggested his once authoritarian Kuomintang Party and the Chinese Communist Party were freres-enemies.

What, then, are the lessons from these two moments some eight years ago?...

Don’t bring your balloon too close to the flame. Don’t trust China’s government in agreements about any matters of governance. Don’t prioritize overstated prospects for shared economic prosperity with China over protecting and extending democratic norms. And don’t let China place coercive, military means of repression in your midst, as it did in Hong Kong.

What lessons should one not draw?...

One mustn’t assume that a wider diasporic China will inexorably come under Beijing’s illiberal dominion under its terms. Taiwan need not fall under its sway, and certainly shouldn’t willingly risk a condominium of power which will end badly. Hong Kong’s fate shows the fallacy in Ma’s sermonette for one. In the January 2024 election, a presidential victory for the Democratic Progressive Party successor to human rights heroine Tsai Ing-wen would serve Taiwan’s security, stability and values of freedom.

And one mustn’t assume that the current dismal state of freedoms in Hong Kong is a fait accomplit. So few could imagine leaders would deconstruct South Africa’s apartheid regime, the Berlin Wall, the Stasi secret police in East Germany, or the Soviet Union as a “prison house of nations” (Lenin’s moniker for imperial Russia). To assume a status quo is a status permanent is a failure of imagination dishonoring detainees from Joshua Wong to Jimmy Lai.

Flipping who learns from whose tale, Hong Kong might find in Taiwan’s road from one-party authoritarianism to culturally and economically thriving democracy bases of hope and bravery. That is, as long as powerful democracies don’t forsake Hong Kong in misplaced resignation.

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