The trial of Jimmy Lai (黎智英), the Hong Kong pro-democracy campaigner and media tycoon, which is to start today, marks another low point in China’s relentless assault on individual and civil rights in Britain’s former colony — whose traditional freedoms Beijing is legally bound to uphold.
Lai, a British citizen who founded the popular Apple Daily newspaper, faces charges of conspiracy to publish seditious material and collusion with foreign powers under Beijing’s draconian 2020 National Security Law. The accusations are offensive and ridiculous. In effect, the Chinese Communist Party is mounting a show trial.
Like hundreds of others being held without bail, Lai, if found guilty by a handpicked, three-judge panel acting without a jury, faces a life sentence. He is already in solitary confinement after an earlier conviction for unlawful assembly and fraud. Lai denies the charges. This political persecution must cease.
Hong Kong’s huge pro-democracy protests in 2019-2020, which led to more than 10,000 arrests, were sparked by China’s introduction of an illiberal extradition bill. The foolishly violent response of the security forces transformed the demonstrations into a student-led mass movement challenging Beijing’s right to rule.
For an authoritarian, one-party system, any such display of defiance, whether in Xinjiang, Tibet or in lockdown-stressed Shanghai, is unforgivable. For the insecure Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), spreading dissent is more dangerous than spreading COVID-19. His Hong Kong policy now resembles a vendetta.
Last week’s conviction of Hong Kong’s respected Catholic leader, Cardinal Joseph Zen (陳日君), and five other activists showed again how little respect Xi’s China has for personal liberties and legal obligations under the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration. Zen was fined for failing to register a support fund for detained protesters.
China’s arrogant and threatening behavior on multiple fronts requires a robust response from Britain. Whether the issue is the violent antics of Chinese diplomats in Manchester, England, or insidious threats to UK academic freedom, government dithering, indecision and pusillanimity cannot continue.
In 2020, the US imposed sanctions on officials involved in repression in Hong Kong. Britain has still to take any equivalent steps. Last week, Liberal Democrat lawmaker Alistair Carmichael, who cochairs the all-party parliamentary group on Hong Kong, demanded swift action.
“It is vital that the government implements sanctions on individuals who have been identified as directly involved in the systemic violations of human rights... Legitimate targets for sanctions include former chief executive, Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥), and former deputy police commissioner, Chris Tang (鄧炳強),” Carmichael wrote.
It is vital that Britain takes a stand when anti-democratic governments such as China tear up treaties, resort to threats and ignore international law. This is the case with China’s armed intimidation of Taiwan, its South China Sea bullying, and industrial and political espionage targeting the West.
China’s reported creation of “police stations” in European and US cities to monitor and pressurize overseas dissidents is another chilling example of unacceptable activity. The British government was right to offer visas to thousands of Hong Kongers. It was also right last week to block the takeover on security grounds of the UK’s largest producer of semiconductors by a China-owned business.
However, its overall approach to relations with Beijing requires urgent clarification. What is British policy? No one really knows.
Speaking in Bali, Indonesia, where a long-scheduled meeting with Xi was abruptly canceled, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak appeared confused over whether China was a “threat” or a “systemic challenge.” He called it both. Some Conservatives call it an enemy.
Sunak must sort out his ideas. China is on the march — and Xi takes no prisoners.
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