Hong Kong

Hong Kong's Experiment in Freedom Nears a Brutal End

China’s government emphasizes control over prosperity while a demoralized West offers little opposition.

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Hong Kong's freedom once provided a shining example for others to follow. While that freedom was never perfect, it enabled residents of the resource-poor territory to prosper. Residents enjoyed respect for their liberties that was rare in the region and unknown in neighboring China. But administration of Hong Kong was surrendered to China in 1997 and, as the recent raid on a pro-democracy newspaper demonstrates, the territory is losing its liberty as the world looks on in what the Chinese government clearly assumes is a mixture of disinterest and impotence.

Hong Kong was "a place where there's an almost laboratory experiment in what happens when government is limited to its proper function and leaves people free to pursue their own objectives," economist Milton Friedman said in 1980 in his Free to Choose documentary.

"Incredibly, it was in its way to become richer than its colonial ruler, Britain," historian Johan Norberg pointed out when he retraced Friedman's footsteps over three decades later.

Protecting that wealth-producing liberty was a key point in the agreement under which Britain surrendered control of the territory to China.

"The current social and economic systems in Hong Kong will remain unchanged, and so will the life-style," promised the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984. "Rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief will be ensured by law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Private property, ownership of enterprises, legitimate right of inheritance and foreign investment will be protected by law."

The Chinese government initially kept to the bargain, apparently gambling that the wealth provided by Hong Kong's freedom was worth tolerating the criticism of rulers and policies it also entailed. But, in recent years, China's rulers seem to have decided that whatever they hope to gain from quashing dissent is worth more than what will be lost as people and capital flee the territory.

"The people of Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China, have traditionally enjoyed substantial civil liberties and the rule of law under their local constitution, the Basic Law," Freedom House noted this year. "However, the chief executive and about half of the Legislative Council (Legco) are chosen through indirect electoral systems that favor pro-Beijing interests, and the territory's freedoms and autonomy have been sharply reduced in recent years amid growing political intervention from the mainland."

A case in point is the massive police raid last week on the offices of Apple Daily, a pro-democracy publication.

"Today, the Hong Kong Police raided the offices of Apple Daily newspaper for the second time in 10 months and arrested five employees for 'collusion with foreign forces' under the National Security Law," U.K.-based Hong Kong Watch observed on June 17. "According to the National Security Unit Senior Superintendent Steve Li, the operation was launched at 6 a.m. HKT and involved around 500 officers. He said HK$18 million worth of assets belonging to three companies linked to Apple Daily have also been frozen."

In defiance, Apple Daily dramatically increased its print run to emphasize a commitment to continue publishing. But the newspaper is running short of funds because of the asset freeze. While the company plans to ask the government and the courts to allow it to pay its employees and printers, such financial difficulties are undoubtedly an intended result of the application of the draconian National Security Law.

Also muzzled by the crackdown are traditional pro-democracy street protests, which have been held since 2003. This year's July 1 rally has been canceled out of fear of the reaction of the increasingly intolerant and brutal authorities.

The erosion of freedom and the resulting climate of fear inevitably make Hong Kong a less-attractive place to live and do business. About 42 percent of respondents to a May 2021 survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong said they were considering or planning to leave the city. "The most widely shared concern was discomfort due to the National Security Law" which was cited by 62 percent of those indicating a desire to leave.

"Dozens of international companies have moved regional headquarters or offices from the city since 2019, government data show," notes the Wall Street Journal. "That has contributed to the highest rate of commercial real estate vacancies in 15 years, with more than 80% of the vacant space surrendered by international companies."

The exodus of people fleeing the erosion of freedom likely means a decline in prosperity as brains and money seek happier environs. But the Chinese government seems comfortable with that tradeoff. The simultaneous domestic crackdown on large tech companies and successful entrepreneurs suggest that innovation and wealth creation now take a backseat to control for the country's leaders.

Too, the response by the West does little to discourage the totalitarian regime. While the U.K. offers a path to citizenship to hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents who hold British National Overseas passports, China threatens to block their departure. And while the U.S. imposed sanctions on Chinese officials and private companies (not necessarily a good policy if you're trying to punish a state), the Chinese government threatens retaliation against anybody who assists in their enforcement.

Many western countries are lukewarm, at best, in their condemnation of China's brutal policies. That no doubt represents deference to China's significant economic clout. But it may also demonstrate the fact that liberal democracies that might once have championed Hong Kong residents' rights have grown increasingly ambivalent about freedom within their own borders.

"Like many other observers around the world, we are deeply concerned with the decline of democratic attributes over the past decade or so, and this year's Democracy Report documents that this trend continues during 2020," warned the latest annual report from the University of Gothenburg's V-Dem Institute, based in Sweden. Freedom House and The Economist's Intelligence Unit offer similar warnings.

China's government has little reason to temper its authoritarian policies in Hong Kong when traditionally liberal nations that might have once objected instead look somewhat inclined to follow suit.

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59 responses to “Hong Kong's Experiment in Freedom Nears a Brutal End

  1. Well, damn. The Communist Chinese are a bunch of totalitarian slavers.
    Who could have possibly seen that coming?

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    2. I’m only surprised it took this long. Anyone who’s still “thinking” about leaving Hong Kong is going to be too late.

  2. “And while the U.S. imposed sanctions on Chinese officials and private companies (not necessarily a good policy if you’re trying to punish a state)”

    The author criticizes the West for it’s lack of response to the issue, then criticizes the US response, without offering any other possible response of his own.

    1. So, a typical Reason Libertarian then?

    2. Reason just wants open immigration to the US from HK, like they do for all the people in the world. OBL will be along shortly to affirm the Koch/reason position.

    3. Want to play a game?

      1. how about a nice game of chess?

      2. What prize do I get if I win?

    4. That is definitely some hot “both sides” action we like to see.

  3. It’s really sad to see the city go this way. I’m really glad I got to see it a few years ago. It’s the only city in the world I’ve ever been to that felt truly, fundamentally, bicultural. It’s also the place where I ate the tastiest meal I ever ate in my whole life. I will remember the Joy Hing Roasted Meat restaurant for the rest of my life.

    1. I’ve not been, but I understand that Hong Kong was one of the great food experiences in the world. Like, ‘walk down a random street and you could find a good meal,’ kind of places.

      I’m sure that won’t change under firm CCP rule…

      1. Absolutely not!
        If you are allowed to walk down a street, and if you are allowed a food ration, you WILL enjoy the meal, or else.

        1. Bat soup, for instance.

  4. China’s government has little reason to temper its authoritarian policies in Hong Kong when traditionally liberal nations that might have once objected instead look somewhat inclined to follow suit.

    But I have been told that Joe Biden is leading an international effort to shame China for their actions, which is sure to get China to change their behavior. Such a breath of fresh air compared to Trump who seemingly didn’t give a shit what other countries thought about us as long as they feared us. So crass, so vulgar, so unrefined not to realize that appearances matter more than substance. I’m confident that China will momentarily realize that their brutal totalitarianism is frowned upon by all the right-thinking people and will cease being a brutal totalitarian regime.

    1. Can you point to something Trump did to stop China’s expansion into Hong Kong? I can’t. Not that I blame him or Biden/Obama. Its our oldest enemies fought.

  5. “China’s government has little reason to temper its authoritarian policies in Hong Kong when traditionally liberal nations that might have once objected instead look somewhat inclined to follow suit.”

    Who but progressives imagine that being condemned by American politicians is likely to change anything–as if Emperor Xi can somehow be cancelled by Twitter trolls?!

    Does someone here imagine that the CCP wouldn’t have imprisoned, reeducated, and oppressed millions of Uyghurs in Xinjiang if only American politicians had complained more?

    Social justice warriors are nowhere near as frightening as they imagine. Vicious dictators in other countries, certainly, aren’t concerned about the cancel culture tactics of social justice warriors–outside their borders.

    The only things that might change Emperor Xi’s policies towards Hong Kong are things we probably shouldn’t do–escalate the trade war, establish formal ties with Taiwan, or military action. If you’re not advocating that (and I hope you aren’t), then maybe urging our leaders to do something is a bad idea.

    If you want to do something effective, I might suggest trying a consumer boycott campaign, but that’s more likely to protect the working poor from everyday low prices–rather than do anything helpful for the people of Hong Kong.

    Maybe we should set an example by minding our own business. Have you seen all the horrible shit the progressives want to do here in the United States? Why get distracted by what’s happening in Hong Kong?

    1. One can strengthen ties with Taiwan without formally declaring it a de jure independent nation. We can simply elevate its *de-facto* sovereignty and independence. If China can place military weapons in the South China Sea without provoking a war with us, then we can strengthen our strategic position in the region too without provoking a war.

      1. That might deter provocation against our allies in the region and Taiwan specifically, but I don’t think Emperor Xi is about to set Hong Kong free or treat the people of Xinjiang or Tibet any better because we place more assets around Taiwan.

        The United States government exists for the legitimate purpose of protecting our rights, and the purpose of our military is to protect our rights from foreign threats. To whatever extent protecting the rights of our allies is part of that, we should do that, too.

        The legitimate purpose of the U.S. government is not to improve the lives of the people of Hong Kong, Tibet, or Xinjiang with our military and foreign policy, and sometimes we need to come to terms with the fact that there is precious little or nothing we can or should do for people in other parts of the world.

        1. Sadly this. When the Brits left this was all ordained.

      2. “One can strengthen ties with Taiwan without formally declaring it a de jure independent nation. We can simply elevate its *de-facto* sovereignty and independence. ”

        One can do much more than that. One can give China the boot from the UN security council and give the seat back to Taiwan. Bring back the 60’s, man!

    2. We could blow up the three gorges dam

      1. In a mostly peaceful manner, I presume?

      2. Does anyone need to actually blow it up? I thought it was about to fall apart all on its own.

      3. Chinese spokesmen have stated that an attack on Three Gorges would, let’s see if I can find the colorful quote…yep, “[would] bring retaliation that would blot out the sky, and cover the earth.” From here: http://www.china.org.cn/english/China/98648.htm

        Basically, they’ll retaliate with nukes. Hard to blame ’em, considering how many people a breached TGD would kill with a full reservoir.

      4. “We could blow up the three gorges dam”

        Much easier just killing any Asians stupid enough to show their faces on the streets of America.

    3. I think you’re right there isn’t really any kind of intervention that won’t make it worse. Best policy is make US more attractive investment place relative to China ie slash corporate taxes rather than raise them, slash spending and inflation, slash tariffs etc etc. Just do the opposite of the Republicrat establishment.

  6. It seems this is going to come to a boiling point at some time in the near future 🙁 https://www.google.com/maps?cid=588662860612997500

  7. Had the left wing news media outlets (including Reason) truthfully and responsibly reported (instead of censoring and denying NY Post articles and anyone who reposted them) even a tiny bit of the massive amount of corrupting evidence found on Hunter Biden’s laptop prior to the November 2020 election, Hong Kong residents likely wouldn’t face enslavement by the Communist Chinese.

    The Chinese Communists own Joe Biden because they almost certainly have everything on Hunter Biden’s laptop (that Reason and other left wing media outlets censored to defeat Trump) and other evidence implicating the Big Guy in corrupt foreign deals that enriched Hunter and Joe’s brothers.

    Seems like the left wing news media and Democrats have gone ALL IN to ensure that Hong Kong’s future will be bleak for anyone who cannot get out.

    1. While I agree that Reason and the rest of left wing media, including social media, should be called out for the handling of the Hunter story, I don’t think it would have mattered to the future of Hong Kong.

      1. “I don’t think it would have mattered to the future of Hong Kong.”

        I don’t think it matters to the future of Hunter Biden,

    2. How dare you demean the name and charecter of a brilliant artist! His first paintings alone are selling for $500k! The painting are so valuable the buyers are remaining anonymous! And here you have the audacity to call him corrupt!

      1. The only way to stop Hunter is to get the Clintons to believe he has some dirt on them.

    3. “Seems like the left wing news media and Democrats have gone ALL IN to ensure that Hong Kong’s future will be bleak for anyone who cannot get out.”

      This IS the future that they want for all of us, after all. If HK gets strangled, that will be promoted as an example to others.

    4. If the media/entertainment complex and the DNC not been complicit in turning a blind eye to the Uighur genocide then the Chicoms might actually consider tempering their actions.

      As things stand they know they have purchased themselves some serious protection.

      1. It wasn’t the DNC but President Trump who met with Xi and shrugged off his oppression of the Uighurs. Not that it would have made any difference. Abominable as China’s treatment of the Uighurs has been, it’s a bit of a stretch to call it genocide – unlike Stalin and Hitler, the Chinese don’t blatantly murder minorities. Their behavior is similar to how the U.S. treated the Indians in the heyday of Manifest Destiny. It will take another couple of generations for them to grow out of it. In the meantime, brace for more trouble.

  8. Well honestly now who cares, the Brits gave it up over two decades ago to a murderous communist regime, what did they think would happen. And Taiwan is next except Biden and Psycho won’t bother to do anything, just eat pudding and cackle.

    You voted for it.

  9. “western [countries’]…lukewarm, at best,…condemnation of China’s brutal policies…may also demonstrate…that liberal democracies that might once have championed Hong Kong residents’ rights have grown increasingly ambivalent about freedom within their own borders.”

    Actually, it represents the type of isolationist foreign policy that some people, including unfortunately many misguided isolationist libertarians and Reason writers and commenters, have embraced over the years that characterizes any efforts to champion liberal democratic values abroad as reckless foreign adventurism. When you tell people to stop opposing tyranny abroad, sometimes they follow your advice.

    1. +

  10. Hong Kong will soon be the newest Chinese ghost town. Except this one will be a real ghost town not a real estate swindle.

    The moment the West stops investing in China, the whole house of cards will tumble. They can’t keep building empty cities indefinitely.

    1. As I recall, China used more cement in three years in the past decade than the US did in the entire 20th century. They are building a lot more than empty cities.

  11. Much like the Arab Spring, western media fawning over protesters missed the coming disaster for the populations involved.

    There was a particular law that started the recent round of protests in Hong Kong. After a couple weeks, the law was repealed. The proper response of the protesters at that point should have been to stop the protests. To accept detente. To have quiet conversations rather than loud protestations.

    But they continued to protest. At that point, China had nothing to lose by cracking down and passing more laws. And it has worked as far as China is concerned.

    China didn’t really mind the liberties of Hong Kong — except the liberty to complain about China. Unfortunately, pro-democracy protesters thought there was actually a path to democracy. That was never in the cards.

  12. Karl marx said that socialism couldn’t exist with out capitalists to steal fro.. Hong Kong was capitalist and China wanted money. How is this surprising to anyone?

  13. “China’s government has little reason to temper its authoritarian policies in Hong Kong when traditionally liberal nations that might have once objected instead look somewhat inclined to follow suit.”

    OFFICIAL criticism aimed at other countries (such as China) can easily open the door for foreign interventionism – assuming that criticism is not taken as interventionism itself.

    1. “can easily open the door for foreign interventionism”

      Chinese govt is far more fearful of domestic intervention, ie citizens taking to the streets and disrupting business.

  14. (sorry) Flee Hong Kong!

  15. “Rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief will be ensured by law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Private property, ownership of enterprises, legitimate right of inheritance and foreign investment will be protected by law.”

    The libertarian ethos in a nutshell.

    China’s government has little reason to temper its authoritarian policies in Hong Kong when traditionally liberal nations that might have once objected instead look somewhat inclined to follow suit.

    Good grief. I don’t think I can roll my eyes that hard.

  16. China obviously does not care much about what other nations think. Hong Kong is toast – more people and businesses will leave.

    1. Mong Kok has a population density of 340,000 per square mile.

  17. So is America’s.

  18. Well, as long as the NBA and Lebron James can profit it’s all cool.

    1. Apple, General. Don’t forget Apple.

  19. “Dozens of international companies have moved regional headquarters or offices from the city since 2019, government data show….”

    Yeah, to Shanghai.

  20. How can the US object? The US DOJ is performing a similar crush of freedom right now. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, our answer to the Russian FSB, is conducting a national search to arrest and send demonstrators to prison. At the same time, many organs of the current administration is conducting “investigations” of the previous president. You don’t have to like Trump to realize that the investigators are totally uninterested in the truth of the charges. Navalny may be safer than Trump although if Trump went on a hunger strike, he’d be better off. Soon, the PRC will be found innocent of any crime from their viral attack and Hunter can relax.

    1. “many organs of the current administration is conducting “investigations” of the previous president.”

      Trump being investigated? The horror!

      How many thousands of Americans are shot dead by police without being charged or arrested? China is a model of restraint in comparison.

  21. Sorry, “are conducting”

  22. Hong Kong’s Experiment in Freedom Nears a Brutal End

    Not a well-formed headline for the story. The headline seems to imply that the “experiment” was brutal, not the suppression of the “experiment” by The Butchers of Beijing.

  23. Huh… Sounds a heck of a lot like what the Democrat party is doing to the USA ‘experiment’…

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