“No one is safe from repression by the Chinese Communist Party”
Samuel Chu has experienced what it can mean to speak out publicly for human rights and democracy and against China. The Hong Kong authorities have issued arrest warrants against the founder and president of The Campaign for Hong Kong, a Washington, DC, based organization, and he has been sanctioned by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2021. Samuel Chu spoke at an Atlantik-Brücke event on May 23, 2023, about what signals the events in places like Hong Kong send to policy makers for a transatlantic policy toward China. We conducted the following interview with Mr. Chu after the event.
The mass protests in Hong Kong in 2019/2020 were met with massive repression. Many opposition members and activists left the city as a result. What were the long-term effects on the political situation in Hong Kong?
The crackdown in Hong Kong has been swift and total. In a matter of months, Hong Kong went from one of the freest cities in the world to one of the most restricted regarding public and political freedom and dissent, even compared to the standard of any mainland Chinese city.
While Hong Kong never had a fully democratic political system, there were nonetheless long-standing democratic institutions, civil society, and a robust political opposition that thrived – until now.
Public protests have all but been banned. The election process has been rewritten to ensure that only pro-Beijing parties and individuals can participate. All local independent media outlets have been shut down or forced to close as their publishers and executives sit behind bars. The civil society space has closed – not only protest groups but trade unions, student associations, and charitable organizations – all shuttering or risked facing arrests. Almost every pro-democracy activist and opposition politician is now in jail or exile.
The PRC has broken the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration and all the guarantees made to Hong Kongers and the world. Beijing has proven once again that they are not to be trusted.
The collapse of “one country, two systems” might be a temporary blow – but it also frees us from the facade of trying to defend partial freedom with an expiration date. There will not be a free Hong Kong until there is a free China.
Following the passage of a new security law, an arrest warrant was issued for you in 2020. How has this affected your work as an activist?
One thing for certain is that it has not stopped me from continuing to speak out.
But I suspect that the Beijing and Hong Kong authorities knew that they would not be able to silence me. Their goals were broader and more insidious. By targeting me, they are sending a warning to not just my family and friends that they are potential hostages and could suffer because of my actions but also to anyone who might have personal or economic interests in or with China or Hong Kong. It is an attempt to isolate me from the people in Hong Kong and a warning to those outside that any connections or affiliations with me could put a target on their backs.
At the same time, what has happened to me only proves and strengthens the case I have made – no one is safe from CCP repression and interference. I might be the first foreign national to be targeted, but I am surely not the last.
How can Western countries support the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong?
First and foremost, do not accept that Hong Kong is lost forever, and do not buy into the government’s claim that Hong Kong has returned to normal.
Western countries can also continue to support the movement by
- Offering asylum and immigration protection for Hong Kongers
- Pressing the legal obligations under the Joint Declaration and pursuing all legal and appropriate channels to hold the PRC accountable for violating the treaty
- Highlighting the cases of political prisoners in Hong Kong
- Issuing up-to-date warnings for businesses operating in Hong Kong and travel advisory for individuals and businesses
- Support the Hong Kong diaspora and dissident communities and invest in responses against CCP-sponsored transnational repression
- Doing due diligence on PRC investment and “de-risk” from over-reliance on PRC supply chain, market, technology, or investment
China has greatly expanded its geopolitical influence in recent decades, among other things, through massive financial investments abroad, especially in countries of the global South. Can China’s global influence be curtailed, and if so, how?
Any deal with the PRC comes with unwritten “strings” attached, and terms can be changed and ripped up without warning or recourse. The “investments” the PRC has made in developing countries are exploitative – leading to mounting debt, loss of natural resources, and often unwanted or unfinished infrastructures. At the same time, the PRC has been aggressively investing and acquiring critical infrastructures in the West – from 5G networks to power stations, from port terminals to technology manufacturing.
There must be stronger foreign investment screening mechanisms in place. In addition, any decisions to approve investment domestically or abroad must be based on the principle of reciprocity.
But we must also focus on long-term investment and development aid that would provide alternatives to the PRC. Economic development only works in the long term if they are accompanied by democratic political development.
The dependence on Russian gas has made Germany aware of the strategic importance of supply chains. In your opinion, what steps are necessary to avoid becoming similarly dependent on China?
Waking up from its overreliance on Russian gas has been a painful lesson for Europe since the invasion of Ukraine. Still, it is nothing compared to the impact of breaking from a similar overreliance on China.
Businesses are already taking notice and assessing the potential risks of a withdrawal or economic sanctions of the PRC based on what has happened to Russia.
Governments must become more proactive and diligent along the same line. Last year, Germany took a small step in capping guarantees of investments in projects in the PRC. Yet earlier this year, Deutsche Bahn awarded a 64 million Euro contract to supply the components for its new IP network to a company using technology from China’s Huawei.
Notably, the PRC has been actively curtailing its overreliance on the West with its “Made in China 2025” and “Buy China” campaigns for almost a decade. They understand the importance of investing in domestic technology and manufacturing – we should do the same.
Since the beginning of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the conflict over Taiwan has also come more into focus for Germany, and there is growing concern about a Chinese attack on Taiwan. What similarities and differences do you see between these two cases?
Ukraine is to Putin what Taiwan is to Xi. In their quest for “reunification” with sovereign states that they never ruled or controlled, Putin and Xi have crafted false narratives of historical wrongs and national shame that they must rectify.
Moscow and Beijing have also invested heavily in interfering and manipulating the political processes and public discourse in Ukraine and Taiwan, respectively, over the years – only to watch both increasingly reject closer ties and embrace the West.
The crackdown in Hong Kong has served as a double-edged sword for Xi in Taiwan. On the one hand, no one will ever buy into the “one country, two systems” trick and lie again, least of all Taiwan. But on the other hand, the international response to the closing of Hong Kong has hardly been a strong deterrent.
How we continue to stand with Ukraine against Putin (and his “no limits” partnership with Xi) will be paramount when it comes to the fate of Taiwan. The most powerful and important deterrent to China attacking Taiwan is the complete victory of Ukraine against Russia.