Nicholas Goldberg: Democracy is dying in Hong Kong. But why should the rest of us care?

Can democracy be destroyed? It can. Look at Hong Kong.

My last visit there was at the end of 2019, right before the pandemic, during what seems in retrospect to have been the final stand of the pro-democracy movement. Pop-up demonstrations were common in those days. There was also a lot of clashes between police officers and masked activists.

The Hong Kong government was already crackingdown on dissent, and more often siding with Beijing’s attempts to control the city. Independent news organizations remained opposed to the erosion of democratic freedoms. Opinion politicians spoke out to defend autonomy and independence.

Everywhere there were signs of debate, dissent and resistance: detritus from the previous night’s protests, peeling wall posters and angry anti-government graffiti.

But those days are gone.

Opinion Columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg served 11 years as editor of the editorial page and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and Sunday Opinion section.

The protests have been beaten back. More than 100 pro-democracy leaders and activists have been charged under the draconian national security law imposed in June 2020. Thousands of protestors have also been detained. The charges include separatism and subversion.

Government is being purged of critics. In 2021, Hong Kong and Chinese authorities demanded that elected officials and candidates for office pledge their loyalty not just to Hong Kong and its laws, but to Beijing as well. Many members of Hong Kong’s districts councils were forced to resign or were expelled from office. If the authorities did not find their pledges credible, even those who swear fealty were fired.

The repression of the independent media has been intense — and successful. In the last week of December, Stand News was raided and searched by hundreds of officers. Seven editors, board members, and a journalist were taken into custody and the organization stated that the site would be shut down. On Jan. 3, Citizen News (a small online news website) announced that it would also cease publishing due to safety concerns. They were the last independent voices left in the city. Their closure followed the shutdown in June of the feisty, independent tabloid Apple Daily, owned by clothing tycoon Jimmy Lai, who is now in prison.

The teachers union and the city’s largest independent trade union were disbanded in 2021, as was the Civil Human Rights Front, which had organized some of the biggest pro-democracy demonstrations.

Police and courts have become “tools of Chinese state control rather than independent and impartial enforcers of the rule of law,” said Human Rights Watch in June. My visit has seen academic freedom threatened, museums closed, films cancelled, monuments destroyed, political slogans banned, and books taken out of libraries.

Hong Kong Chief executive Carrie Lam is now just a functionary for the Beijing government. This is how democracies go extinct. There is no way for Hong Kong’s people to resist the overlords of the mainland without leaders who are bold enough to speak up, without outlets to publish or broadcast independent news, and without a judicial system that is independent. It is very depressing to see their subjugation.

The city was under British colonial rule for more than 150 years, until 1997, when the United Kingdom handed it over to China. At that time, the Chinese government agreed to allow a significant measure of political autonomy and personal freedom for 50 years under a framework known as “one country, two systems.”

But that promise has been broken. The United States government has decried the situation. After Stand News was shut down two weeks ago, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said “Journalism is not sedition…. A confident government that is unafraid of the truth embraces a free press.”

But what is the U.S. prepared to do about it? The American government can only put a limited amount of pressure on China, a powerful superpower, to protect Hong Kong’s citizens. Hong Kong is more important to China than to us.

If nothing else, the events in Hong Kong are a reminder of how fragile democracy can be. This is something that we need to remember.

There was a period just after the Cold War ended when some people believed the forward march of democracy had become irreversible, that the collapse of dictatorships was inevitable, that the liberal democratic order had triumphed over totalitarianism and despotism. In the early 2000s, the number of free and democratic countries grew dramatically, by all sorts of measures. But democracy has been declining in recent years. The Economist’s “Democracy Index” for 2020, for instance, found that thanks to “democratic backsliding,” only 8.4% of the world’s people were now living in what could be considered full democracy. The index’s “global democracy score” was lower than its been since it was created in 2006.

Backsliding has occurred here at home, too. The Economist now classifies the U.S. as a flawed democracy. And in March of last year, the U.S. fell to a new low in an annual global ranking of political rights and civil liberties by Freedom House, earning 83 out of 100 points, down from 94 a decade earlier. We can’t afford to be complacent. We cannot afford to be complacent about democracy, rule of law, civil rights, and individual liberties. They are all in danger at home and abroad. We are being sent a powerful message by the people of Hong Kong: Enjoy democracy and be proud — and fight for it’s survival.


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