The Fight for Freedom Knows No Borders

Photo Credit: AP/達志影像
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The Tiananmen Square Massacre anniversary is a reminder that defending freedom and human rights against tyranny is a common responsibility—and in our best interest.

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Once again this year, the Hong Kong Federation of Students has announced it will not participate in the June 4 candlelight vigil in Victoria Park, the annual event organized by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China to commemorate the Tiananmen Square Massacre, in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unarmed protesters were brutally murdered by the Chinese military in 1989.

A deepening pro-localization sentiment combined with rising Beijing-skepticism among Hong Kong’s youth appear to be the main reasons behind the federation’s decision to not involve itself in the vigil, which every year has attracted tens of thousands of residents in Hong Kong. For the young people who fall in that category and who do not see a common future with China, the human rights situation in China proper may be worrying, but ultimately it is not their problem, and certainly not their responsibility to fix. For some of them, the June 4 commemorations are “meaningless.”

A similar phenomenon has long existed in Taiwan, where the consolidation of a distinct Taiwanese consciousness has contributed to an erosion of support for the cause of human rights in China. Linguistic and cultural affinities not withstanding, for most people in Taiwan, China is a foreign country, and while Beijing’s track record on human rights may be deplorable (and in some respects it is getting worse), it is none of their business. The dwindling numbers of participants at the annual June 4 vigil at Liberty Square in Taipei, with a few hundred people gathering in recent years, may well be the result of such developments in Taiwanese identity.

There is much work to be done to improve the societies in Taiwan and Hong Kong, they will argue, and energies should be focused on such efforts rather than on China, where the challenge is, furthermore, greater by orders of magnitude thanks to the strict controls imposed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

While there is certain logic to this view, it is also a somewhat myopic one. The fact is, authoritarian China ignores borders, especially when territories on its immediate periphery, and which it claims as its own, are concerned. The situation has only gotten worse, with the CCP in recent years becoming both more assertive and paranoid, a dangerous mix that has resulted in a crackdown on all forms of political dissent and expression.

That assault, enshrined in a new National Security Law enacted last year, has also expanded outwards and now includes Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan, three “territories” that Beijing regards as subjugated equals. The ramifications for activism, freedom of expression and liberty are many, what with the recent cases of kidnapping in Hong Kong, the neutralization of the media there, and indications that journalists based in Taiwan are now also being intimidated by CCP-linked entities.

Needless to say, Beijing has not limited its efforts to silence its critics in its immediate backyard. It has embarked on a global campaign of acquisitions, partnerships, propaganda, political warfare and—when that fails—outright intimidation to achieve its objectives. Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s (王毅) fit of anger in Ottawa earlier this week, when he berated a journalist for daring to raise a question about human rights in China, is also indicative of the contempt Beijing has for such matters.

Given the extent of its ambitions, we cannot assume that we can simply erect walls around us and that Beijing will leave us alone. Thus, while the people of Taiwan and Hong Kong may be justified in their belief that they have nothing to do with China and desire to be left alone, the reality is that the stronger party begs to differ and will do everything in its power to win the game. And it has the means to climb over whatever fences we erect.

If only for selfish reasons, we must therefore take the fight to the CCP, and that means joining hands with those in China who wage daily battles to defend human rights there. We cannot afford to abandon them, and they in turn cannot afford to be abandoned.

As Wang Dan (王丹), one of the Tiananmen leaders who now lives in Taiwan, argued in an editorial earlier this week, “Freedom doesn’t just mean freedom for oneself. One-party rule in China is the true enemy, and it’s not just the enemy of Hong Kong people, but of the whole of civilized society.”

Though it flowered from very local roots, Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement understands this and has participated in June 4-related events—in Taiwan, and when they are not barred entry, in Hong Kong as well. That same movement also acknowledged early on the need to cultivate ties with like-minded Chinese nationals, some of whom it invited as “observers” during the occupation of the Legislative Yuan in March and April 2014. (Unfortunately some narrow-minded officials at the same legislature recently refused to allow a Chinese student, currently enrolled at a Canadian university, to enter the building as part of a delegation, thus denying her a chance to observe institutionalized democracy at work.) We can only hope that pro-localization groups in Hong Kong will soon arrive at similar conclusions and join hands with human rights defenders across the border, and elsewhere.

China’s assault on freedom knows no borders; our battle to defend those freedoms should be waged in kind.

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