Xi Jinping Tries to Send a Message With Arrest of Jimmy Lai

In general, one supposes that it is a good thing that most folks living in liberal democracies are not prone to think the most terrible things about other human beings. If trust is the lubricant that makes our laws and everyday activities run smoothly, then, that prejudice is an understandable one. But, of course, the downside is that it leaves those same liberal democracies at times blind to the worst behavior or, if not totally blind, often slow to wrap our heads around it.

One doesn’t need to go deep into history to prove this: The famine in Ukraine and the Holocaust are events that readily come to mind. In our own day, think how long it took for the West to understand that China had created a vast gulag designed to extinguish as much as possible Uighur identity in Xinjiang. Arguably, we still haven’t fully wrapped our heads around its scale and brutality. And over the past few months, we’ve been slow to see just how determined Beijing and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping have been to eliminate whatever semblance of autonomy Hong Kong has had, despite the fact that it had signed a formal agreement with London that supposedly guaranteed that self-rule.

Even when Xi made clear that, in the absence of Hong Kong’s ability to pass a law greatly expanding China’s reach into the territory’s affairs, he would just punt on the jurisdictional formalities and have his rubber-stamp National People’s Congress dictate the new law over Hong Kong, there were plenty of officials, businessmen, and pundits who couldn’t believe that Beijing actually intended to use the law in any serious fashion. It was a deterrent aimed at the pro-democracy protests and meant to stabilize the situation in Hong Kong—or so folks argued, and hoped. 

But, Monday, those hopes crashed when Hong Kong police arrested Jimmy Lai, the publisher of Apple Daily, the popular pro-democracy newspaper, along with other staff and Mr. Lai’s two sons for allegedly violating the new national security law. This was not an event intended to be seen as low-key or done in the dark of night; about 200 police were used to raid the newspaper’s offices and ransack its files; they appeared not to mind having the whole thing livestreamed. And the arrest comes on the heels of the city’s (Beijing appointed) chief executive postponing the city’s September elections—elections that could well have resulted in a large increase of pro-democracy candidates in the city’s assembly. And Lai’s arrest comes only a day after the U.S., Australia, the U.K., Canada, and New Zealand—the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance—put out a statement strongly objecting to the cancellation. If the arrest of Lai was not specifically intended to challenge the United States and its security partners, it certainly has had that effect.

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