Jimmy Lai was arrested last week. If you don’t know who Jimmy Lai is, let me enlighten you: He’s a freedom fighter. He’s not fighting the patriarchy, or the 1 percent, or those who don sombreros on Halloween. He’s fighting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which is intent on subjugating Hong Kong.
Visiting Washington last summer, Mr. Lai met with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and members of Congress. He paid a visit to my think tank as well. I observed that he was putting himself in serious peril. He replied that the defense of freedom has always required risk and sacrifice.
Mr. Lai, 71, began his career as a 12-year-old laborer in a Hong Kong glove factory. By 20 he was the factory’s manager. Not long after, he became a fantastically successful entrepreneur. To support freedom of the press and speech, he began publishing newspapers.
He could now be spending his wealth and time drinking cocktails on a beach. Instead, he’s facing charges of “illegal assembly” connected with a protest last August coinciding with the fifth anniversary of Beijing’s refusal to permit fully democratic elections in Hong Kong.
Conviction could mean five years in prison. Or more: “We have every reason to believe that the trial of traitors like Lai has only just begun,” threatened an editorial in China’s official Xinhua News Agency.
Americans and Europeans have long seen China not as it is, but as we wish it were. At Tiananmen Square in June 1989, thousands of pro-democracy protesters were massacred. The response of the “international community” was tepid. Just eight years later, Britain handed Hong Kong, which it had ruled for 156 years, to CCP control.
Beijing promised that the people of Hong Kong — who have developed their own distinctive culture, values and identity — would be permitted to preserve political, legal and economic autonomy for 50 years. China’s current ruler, Xi Jinping, has broken that promise.
For decades, the conventional wisdom held that as China became richer it would become more moderate, perhaps even a “strategic partner” helping strengthen the global “rules-based order.”
With that in mind, in 2001 China was admitted to the World Trade Organization as a “developing nation,” entitling it to “special and differential treatment,” a status it enjoys to this day. China’s accession was widely hailed as “an enormous multilateral achievement.”
Since then, China has stolen hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of American intellectual property. Millions of China’s workers live in dreadful conditions. More than a million Muslim Uighurs are incarcerated in “re-education camps.” Tibet has been colonized, its people, culture and religion suppressed.
Beijing’s most recent gift to the world is the coronavirus. The dominant theory (for now) is that the disease originated among bats or other wild mammals sold for their meat in a market in Wuhan, China.
Since the outbreak, which continues to spread globally, Chinese authorities have been neither transparent nor cooperative with American and other scientists, complicating efforts to develop a vaccine.
What else have China’s rulers done for us lately? The U.S. Pacific Fleet announced last week that a Chinese destroyer had focused a weapons-grade laser on a Navy airplane operating over international waters near Guam. Lasing, which violates both bilateral and multilateral agreements, can do serious harm to pilots and crews.
The U.S. Justice Department has accused Huawei, the Chinese telecom leviathan, of conspiracy under RICO (the Racketeering and Corrupt Organizations Act). It’s not often that a major foreign corporation is viewed by law enforcement as the equivalent of a mafia enterprise. One of the indictments alleges that Huawei has been unlawfully obtaining prohibited U.S. goods, technology and services and delivering them to local affiliates in North Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Gui Minhai, a naturalized Swedish citizen, used to work for a Hong Kong publishing company in Thailand. He also wrote about Chinese corruption. Five years ago, he disappeared, only to turn up in police custody in mainland China. Last week, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “illegally providing intelligence overseas.”
Sun Yang, a six-time Olympic medalist in swimming, was last week suspended from competition for eight years following a “drug-testing violation.” Chinese sports cheating has a long history. As The New York Times noted, more than 30 Chinese “swimmers were caught using banned substances in the 1990s and 40 of its 300 athletes were withdrawn by Chinese authorities from competing at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, a number for suspicious blood-test results.”
“Deception is China’s true rule of law,” Jimmy Lai wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed earlier this month.
President Xi and the hard men of the CCP have long been deceiving Americans and Europeans — lying to us, stealing from us, infiltrating our supply chains, universities, laboratories and cyber networks, spreading pathogens and infectious totalitarianism.
They give us cheap products and services. In exchange, we maintain the fiction that they are not attempting to impose their own “rules-based order” on the world.
Sadly but undeniably, Communist China has chosen to be America’s adversary. Sino-American political and economic relations should be restructured in accordance with this reality, a process that Mr. Trump — commendably and in contrast with his predecessors — at least has begun.
At this moment, he could send a useful message by making clear that until Jimmy Lai is free, President Xi will not again be welcome at the White House.
• Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.