It’s Time for Democracies to Push Back Against China’s Authoritarianism

On June 4, 2005, the 16th anniversary of the 1989 massacre of democracy protesters by China’s People’s Liberation Army troops, the filmmaker Liu Wei walked up to people in Beijing and asked what day it was. He captured their uncomfortable responses in a 13-minute documentary. “I know, but I don’t want to talk about it.” “I don’t know much about it.” “Don’t record this.” 

That fear and ignorance are exactly what China plans to create in Hong Kong, by banning—for the second straight year—the vigil that had been held for 30 years, imprisoning those who defied last year’s ban, and shutting down a museum dedicated to June 4. Hong Kongers responded with bravery and imagination. At 8 p.m., when the vigil usually began, some walked by the gate to Victoria Park and activated the light on their cell phones as if lighting a candle. Someone designed a T-shirt with a black box in a 6:4 ratio—the date of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989—against a white background. However, just as in mainland China, some in Hong Kong apparently fear using the number in any context: A local weather woman omitted the humidity index, 64, from her forecast. 

If democracies want things to be better by June 4 next year, they will have to push back against Chinese leaders steadily and consistently, in ways that they grew unaccustomed to under an “engagement” approach that called for delinking trade relations from human rights and relied on the Internet to defeat China’s surveillance state.  

Fortunately, there has been an awakening. In the U.S., China is a subject of considerable bipartisan agreement and cooperation. President Joe Biden has continued and expanded some Trump administration policies, including a ban on U.S. investment in military companies. Europe, too, is now alert to China’s predatory economic tactics and its efforts to sow dissension among the democracies of the European Union. Italy has changed its position dramatically from just two years ago when it enthusiastically joined China’s Belt and Road investment and infrastructure initiative. 

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