Taiwanese demonstrators show their support for Hong Kong pro-democracy protests at Free Square in Taipei on June 13. (Photo: Sam Yeh/AFP)
The Chinese Communist Party regime is opening up a remarkable number of fronts simultaneously against the rest of the world.
Not only has it escalated tensions with India to their worst levels in 60 years, begun a new Cold War with the United States, prompted many countries to rethink their relationship with China due to the regime’s repression and mendacity over Covid-19, lashed out at the European Parliament and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights for speaking out against the proposed new national security law for Hong Kong, and threatened Britain, Australia and many other countries. Now it has issued a warning to Taiwan not to provide sanctuary for so-called “rioters” from Hong Kong.
Taiwan, one of the region’s most vibrant democracies, announced on June 18 that it would set up a dedicated office specifically to provide “humanitarian relief and care” for Hong Kongers who may need to flee their city if the proposed draconian national security law takes effect. The new office will begin work on the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover on July 1.
Beijing responded the following day, warning that “providing shelter for and taking onto the island the rioters and elements who bring chaos to Hong Kong will only continue to bring harm to Taiwan’s people.”
Beijing’s reaction is no surprise. The Chinese regime has always regarded self-governing Taiwan as part of China and has long pressured most of the international community to support a “One China” policy. In recent years, under Xi Jinping, its approach regarding Taiwan has become even more aggressive, pressuring the World Health Organization (WHO) to exclude Taiwan despite the island’s impressive handling of the coronavirus pandemic, influencing major corporations over the way they refer to Taiwan, and escalating military threats to Taiwan by flying fighter jets into Taiwanese airspace. Many experts think the crackdown in Hong Kong may be a prelude to an effort to retake control of Taiwan, so it is not surprising that Beijing would be unhappy about Taiwan’s solidarity with Hong Kong.
But Taiwan is absolutely right to have offered help to Hong Kong, and the world should stand with them. Firstly, the island — especially under President Tsai Ing-wen — has proven to be a champion for human rights and democracy in the region, so it is an obvious destination for Hong Kong political activists in need of help. An hour’s flight away, it offers cultural and linguistic familiarity as well as a common cause: the defense of freedom against an increasingly repressive Chinese regime on the mainland.
And the national security law really will be the death of Hong Kong’s autonomy. The city was handed over to China by Britain 23 years ago on the principle of “one country, two systems” with the promise that Hong Kong’s basic freedoms, the rule of law and “a high degree of autonomy” would remain in place at least for 50 years.
These pledges were enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a treaty lodged at the United Nations, and the concept of “one country, two systems” devised by Deng Xiaoping was created with at least one eye on Taiwan. The hope then was that if it proved a success, it might one day provide a model for Taiwan’s peaceful reunification with mainland China.
The increasing erosion of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong over the past six years has put paid to any desire on Taiwan’s part to go down that path, and the security law signals the final nails being hammered into Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms.
Senior clerics in danger
While the full, final details of the security law are still to be announced by the National People’s Congress in Beijing, what has emerged over the past weekend is profoundly alarming. Ill-defined “moderate” offenses under the categories of subversion, secession and colluding with foreign political groups may be punished by prison terms of at least three years. More “serious” offenses could carry five or 10-year terms, or perhaps more.
Knowing Beijing’s definition of subversion, any criticism or perceived criticism of the Chinese Communist Party may be criminalized. Freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom to protest peacefully, press freedom, academic freedom and freedom of religion or belief will all be directly impacted. And Beijing will have oversight of the judicial process and the chief executive of Hong Kong — a Beijing puppet — will choose the judges.
Among those most in danger — who may be regarded by Beijing as “rioters” for their prominent roles in peaceful protests and candlelit prayer vigils — are Hong Kong’s outspoken emeritus bishop, Cardinal Joseph Zen, and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha. Lay Catholics such as the “father” of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, Martin Lee, and Jimmy Lai, proprietor of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, have already been arrested and face trial, while Hong Kong’s former chief secretary, Anson Chan, a prominent supporter of democracy, may also be a key target. Other prominent Christians — Protestants such as Benny Tai and Joshua Wong — have been central figures in Hong Kong’s democracy movement.
Furthermore, churches that have sheltered demonstrators or offered them water, and Christians who have participated in prayer vigils and sung “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” — a chorus that became an anthem for the protesters a year ago — will be at risk. Clergy talking about justice, freedom and human dignity in their homilies may be in violation of the law.
There is every reason for the Church to speak out against the national security law and to welcome Taiwan — and the world’s — solidarity. And every reason for Pope Francis and the Vatican to urgently reconsider their agreement with Beijing and speak out now. The Vatican is one of the few states still to hold diplomatic relations with Taiwan — and that relationship should be enhanced, not weakened.
Last year Taiwan held two conferences on religious freedom in the world and appointed Asia’s first ever special ambassador for international religious freedom, joining the United States, the United Kingdom and several European countries which already have such envoys.
For Hong Kongers in general — and those of faith in particular — Taiwan’s offer of help doesn’t come a moment too soon. While Cardinal Zen, Martin Lee and Jimmy Lai are most likely prepared to go to jail rather than flee their city, other Catholics and indeed people of all faiths who have until now enjoyed religious freedom may choose to leave to avoid the fate of religious adherents in mainland China who are enduring the worst assault on religion since the Cultural Revolution.
Taiwan’s latest efforts to help Hong Kong are among the first in what may become a global “lifeboat” rescue package for Hong Kongers who need to flee. Calls are growing for Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and other democracies to coordinate a package of assistance for Hong Kongers in danger, and some have already indicated a readiness to help.
But just as with Covid-19, where Taiwan warned the world early on and, despite being ignored by the WHO, showed exemplary leadership and generosity in the pandemic, once again it is leading the way in responding to a terrible crisis that — unless something changes dramatically in the next few days — is about to engulf Hong Kong.
The rest of the free world must strengthen relations with Taiwan, work with the Taiwanese government on this issue and be prepared to defend Taiwan. In short, as Taiwan stands with Hong Kong, everyone who believes in freedom, human rights, democracy and the international rules-based order around the world must not flinch in standing with them both.
Benedict Rogers is co-founder and chair of Hong Kong Watch. He works full-time at international human rights organization CSW, which specializes in freedom of religion or belief for all, and serves as the deputy chair of the UK Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.