On the morning of June 30, 2020, Joshua Wong walked into an workplace tower known as the St. John’s Constructing, straight throughout the road from the U.S. consulate in Hong Kong. He carried nothing however his cellphone.
The repressive equipment of mainland China was closing in on town the place he had spent nearly half of his younger life preventing for democracy, and although for six years he had curated a picture as a fearless worldwide icon, that morning, Wong felt panicked. He had determined to take his possibilities by interesting to the conscience of probably the most highly effective democracy on this planet.
Wong was a thin, toothy teen in 2014, when his pupil activism within the Umbrella Motion catapulted him to international renown: Time journal dubbed him “The Face of Protest.” He served a brief jail sentence and was launched in June 2019, into the tear-gas-tinged humidity of Hong Kong’s summer season of discontent. Once more he took the democracy motion’s trigger to the press, changing into its worldwide advocate, urging European powers to take a more durable line on Beijing and calling for Washington to impose sanctions in opposition to those that throttled Hong Kong’s freedoms.
However in the summertime of 2020, with the world within the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, Chinese language officers put the ultimate touches on a national-security regulation that successfully criminalized dissent and reengineered the very character of a as soon as freewheeling metropolis. These discovered responsible below its provisions could possibly be sentenced to jail for all times.
Now Hong Kong’s political teams and civil-society organizations had been getting ready to disband. Retailers had been pulling protest artwork off their partitions. Individuals had been promoting residences and saying goodbyes. A lot of Wong’s closest allies had booked tickets to overseas international locations the place they supposed to hunt asylum. However Wong didn’t have that possibility: His passport had been confiscated by the police.
If his renown was a vulnerability, Wong reasoned, it may also be his path out. The U.S. authorities maintained just a few workplaces within the St. John’s Constructing, and Wong had arrange a routine assembly with two American diplomats.
“I don’t need to go away,” Wong advised them because the assembly ended. “I need to go to the U.S. consulate.”
His gambit drew on a well-known precedent and a vexed historical past. America had forged its lot, at the very least verbally, with the democracy motion in Hong Kong, and the administration of then-President Donald Trump styled itself as robust on China. However how a lot was it prepared to enterprise for the democratic opponents of the Chinese language Communist regime?
Back in 1989, the US appeared to have weighed this drawback and are available down on the facet of precept.
Fang Lizhi was a Chinese language astrophysicist with an extracurricular curiosity in political philosophy and political techniques. His perception in democracy was as public because it was forthright, making him a determine of worldwide stature within the years previous the Tiananmen Sq. protests. A sketch of his face, spherical and sanguine, graced the duvet of the Could 1988 concern of The Atlantic: In it, he wore a slight smile and his signature dark-rimmed glasses. Fang was China’s Andrei Sakharov, the journalist Orville Schell wrote, a “man of not solely eager intelligence and conviction however fearlessness.”
The day after the bloodbath—June 5, 1989—gunfire nonetheless rang out within the streets of Beijing as Fang, his spouse, their son, and the tutorial Perry Hyperlink, who was a longtime good friend, scrambled into the U.S. embassy compound. McKinney Russell, a diplomat and polyglot who was the top of the press and cultural part, and Ray Burghardt, the performing deputy chief of mission, met them inside.
Earlier than he sat down with Fang, Burghardt had consulted his ambassador, James Lilley, a former CIA operative. Lilley was alarmed on the prospect of the Fangs looking for refuge there, fearing that they could get caught in limbo. Burghardt walked away with the impression that he ought to speak the Fangs out of it. He advised Fang that American safety might discredit him and the Chinese language democracy motion: The Communist Occasion would dismiss Fang as a pawn of the US, his presence on the embassy proof that the American “black hand” was behind the protests. The argument appeared persuasive. Fang and his household left, and the procedure-abiding diplomats reported the incident again to Washington.
A number of hours later, Washington, on instruction from President George H. W. Bush, responded to the diplomats’ cable. Over a safe line, the administration delivered an unambiguous message: Go to the Fangs instantly. Inform them that in the event that they want to search asylum, they’d be “welcomed by the president of the US.”
Russell and Burghardt raced to the Jianguo Lodge. They snuck into the again entrance, obtained the household—suitcases already packed—and climbed into an unmarked American van, which raced again to the U.S. embassy. There, the senior Fangs would stay for the following 12 months, till the US negotiated their secure launch to Britain. (Their son had gone again to his college research in Beijing after a month, smuggled out of the embassy in one other covert operation.)
Washington understood why the diplomats initially dealt with the Fangs in the way in which they did. On high of the political sensitivity, the request was technically out of line, as asylum can usually be granted solely in-country, not at a consulate on overseas soil. However the administration’s final concern, Burghardt advised us, was that “no matter what we stated or how we recounted what had occurred, the story would at all times be that we kicked them out they usually obtained arrested.” And so the US broke the principles to guard the Fangs. “It’s a form of fascinating instance of the strain that at all times exists in American overseas coverage, between the realist, strategic method and the necessity to proceed to uphold and to reveal our values,” Burghardt advised us.
Fang and his household finally moved to Tucson, Arizona, the place he labored as a physics professor on the College of Arizona till he died in 2012 at age 76. That very same 12 months, in April, Washington made one other life-altering exception. Chen Guangcheng, a blind activist who had championed incapacity and land rights, made a deadly escape from home arrest. He was given safety on the U.S. embassy in Beijing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton helped negotiate his launch to New York Metropolis, what she known as “an instance of American values in observe.”
American values clearly aligned with these of the motion in Hong Kong—such, actually, was the message Wong and his fellow activists heard loud and clear from Washington in 2019 and 2020. American politicians throughout get together traces praised Hong Kongers for standing as much as China in protection of freedom of speech, the best to meeting, and, most of all, democracy. A few of the demonstrations turned violent, however Hong Kong remained a trigger célèbre contained in the Beltway, the place stalwarts of each events had deep connections to town.
Home Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a decades-long supporter of human rights in China, lauded the protesters, as did Jim McGovern, probably the most liberal members of Congress. However any politician would have been hard-pressed, in 2019, to outdo Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, two of Trump’s closest legislative allies, in performative help. Cruz, the Texas Republican, traveled to Hong Kong in mid-October, carrying all black—in solidarity, he stated. A number of days later, Hawley, of Missouri, planted himself amongst teenagers in athletic gear and yellow helmets to tweet particulars of a nighttime standoff between protesters and police. Each males invoked Berlin and forged Hong Kong as the brand new middle of a world battle between democracy and communism.
No such sense of mission animated the president, nevertheless. Trump had billed his administration as one which took dangers and was robust on China. However his place on Hong Kong was muddled, erratic, and guided primarily by his fixation on Chinese language President Xi Jinping and his need to safe a commerce deal. Your entire U.S.-Chinese language relationship, for Trump, got here all the way down to dealmaking.
The Hong Kong democracy motion didn’t perceive Washington in these phrases. They noticed a president who claimed to be robust on China, along with bipartisan concern for the destiny of their metropolis. Why wouldn’t the US take a stand for one of many motion’s representatives?
Wong enlisted Jeffrey Ngo, a gregarious candidate for a Ph.D. in historical past at Georgetown College and a former member of Wong’s prodemocracy group, to assist him execute a plan. Wong and Ngo had labored collectively since 2016 to win help for Hong Kong from American lawmakers, assembly with dozens of staffers and officers within the administration. Now they’d attraction to these contacts for assist.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a gathering over a safe telephone line together with his closest advisers on Could 23, 2020. Particulars of China’s national-security regulation had been nonetheless not public, however Pompeo was getting ready to answer its implementation by asserting that America now not thought-about Hong Kong sufficiently autonomous to warrant separate therapy below U.S. regulation. He wished coverage ideas on what ought to observe.
The advisers threw out an extended record of punishments: enacting sanctions in opposition to high officers, scrapping coaching applications with the Hong Kong police, stopping the export of protection gear to Hong Kong. Miles Yu, Pompeo’s China-policy adviser, instructed that Washington create a particular immigration pathway for Hong Kong residents. Britain had finished this. Canada and Australia had been additionally engaged on such schemes. And admitting Hong Kongers wasn’t simply charitable. America might supply particular visas to Hong Kong residents with college levels or with specialised abilities; the nation stood to learn from fleeing Hong Kong expertise.
The coverage suggestions reached Trump, whose Nationwide Safety Council had additionally ready three lists of choices in response to China’s strangling of Hong Kong. Deputy Nationwide Safety Adviser Matt Pottinger and Ivan Kanapathy—the NSC’s director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia and deputy senior director for Asian affairs—described theirs as a “Goldilocks” menu: One possibility included a listing of “sizzling” measures (a maximalist method); the second, “chilly” ones; and the final, in-between.
The “sizzling” record comprised actions that had nothing to do with Hong Kong however that China hawks had lengthy sought the chance to take, equivalent to closing the Chinese language consulate in Houston, the place Washington claimed that spies had been aiding in espionage and the theft of scientific analysis. Trump picked the “sizzling” menu. He even appreciated Yu’s immigration thought.
“President Trump stated, ‘Why don’t we simply open up? Why don’t we simply let an enormous portion of individuals from Hong Kong transfer to the U.S.?’ And I beloved it,” Pottinger advised us. “You understand, my view was simply, transplant the entire rattling metropolis and make a brand new Hong Kong in America. [Trump] was like, ‘They’re going to be industrious; they’ll be nice. They’ll make nice People.’”
However Stephen Miller, Trump’s far-right political adviser, stopped the immigration scheme from going additional. He was “very persuasive,” Yu advised us.
The White Home and the State Division moved ahead on many of the different measures. As one senior official stated: “So now we’re going to be serious about Taiwan. We should be serious about the following steps and saying, Look, if you happen to’re going to kill the golden goose, we’re not going to place the goose on fucking life help. We’re going to allow you to kill the goose. After which we’re additionally going to just remember to remorse it.”
Pompeo introduced on Could 27, 2020, that Hong Kong now not had a excessive diploma of autonomy. Within the Rose Backyard, Trump promised to remove “coverage exemptions that give Hong Kong completely different and particular therapy.” Then the president went off script and vowed to chop America’s ties with the World Well being Group. The WHO announcement utterly overshadowed the Hong Kong information.
Wong wished to enter the U.S. consulate. The diplomats advised him that solely the rooms within the St. John’s Constructing had been on supply, and that the workplace tower didn’t supply the safety of a diplomatic compound. In Washington, Ngo took the matter up with certainly one of Hawley’s coverage advisers, reasoning that the ultra-Trumpian senator may need the president’s ear. Responding at 1 a.m., Hawley’s staffer promised to cross the message on to his boss, however nothing modified.
On July 1, the national-security regulation handed. The diplomats’ positions had been the identical: Wong couldn’t enter the consulate and couldn’t apply for asylum from outdoors the US. Wong and Ngo knew the principles. However they had been asking for a similar pathway to haven that had been granted to Fang and Chen.
For years, Ngo had labored behind the scenes for Wong, writing op-eds in his identify and even enhancing his tweets. Now he wrote an electronic mail above Wong’s signature to the secretary of state. “I would like nothing greater than to proceed to struggle for democracy and freedoms in my residence,” it learn. “However there’s professional hazard that I change into a primary goal of arrest and detention … I request U.S. safety in order that I could apply for asylum, together with as crucial touring to the U.S. for the aim of making use of for asylum.”
The e-mail landed within the inbox of Mary Kissel, Pompeo’s senior adviser, simply after midday on July 1 in Washington. Kissel knew Wong and Ngo personally and had lived in Hong Kong as a correspondent for The Wall Avenue Journal. She obtained the message the place it wanted to go.
Throughout the subsequent 48 hours, Pompeo summoned his half dozen or so high officers to debate Wong’s request. They instantly dominated out sheltering him on the U.S. consulate in Hong Kong. Plans had been already below approach to shut the Chinese language consulate in Houston, and when the announcement got here, Beijing would possible retaliate. If Wong was hiding within the U.S. consulate, Beijing might shut it down. Or Beijing might demand Wong’s launch in alternate for American prisoners—it might snatch People off the streets in Hong Kong and maintain them in arbitrary detention for this objective.
The officers thought-about covertly extracting Wong from Hong Kong as an alternative. However Hong Kong’s geography was unforgiving—town shared a land border solely with mainland China, which meant that the one escape can be by boat throughout the Taiwan Strait or south towards the Philippines. Wong would threat encountering the Chinese language Coast Guard in these waters, and American involvement might make for a global incident. Choices dwindled. Quickly the officers got here to consider that none remained.
Pompeo and his advisers determined that the US might neither let Wong into the consulate nor extract him from Hong Kong. “You’ve obtained nationwide curiosity and private curiosity, and in some methods you attempt to discover a stability between the 2,” one senior official concerned within the course of advised us. “Ultimately, you recognize, on the seventh flooring of the State Division, nationwide curiosity received out.”
The choice was hardly unanimous in Washington. A Nationwide Safety Council memo to the State Division opined that Wong ought to be protected, however deferred to State because the deciding authority with, as Pottinger later advised us, a “fuller image” of the info. Pottinger’s deputy, Kanapathy, advised us that worry of what Beijing would do in response was the “absolute improper” purpose to refuse to assist Wong: “In case you can’t do what I feel lots of people would say is the best factor [because] you’re afraid they’re going to do the improper factor, then you definately’ve already misplaced.”
The State Division’s resolution was, unusually, stored shut. Nobody knowledgeable Wong or Ngo that the die was forged. In August, Ngo appealed to Pelosi and Senator Marco Rubio, each of whom had labored with Wong since he was a teen. They made calls to State on Wong’s behalf, pushing the request on the “highest ranges,” in response to one Hill staffer. At one level, a fellow Hong Kong activist named Nathan Legislation, who had slipped away to London simply earlier than the national-security regulation handed, met with Pompeo in non-public, elevating Wong’s plight straight and emotionally. Nothing modified.
The difficulty “dragged,” one State Division official concerned advised us, “and it lingered, after which the inevitable occurred.” Wong was arrested in September 2020 after which remanded in custody in late November. Final 12 months, he pled responsible to prices of subversion below the national-security regulation.
The democracy motion in Hong Kong made little secret of the hope it positioned in Washington. Some protesters flew American flags on the street, or made public appeals, whether or not to Trump’s gigantic ego or to Pelosi’s help for Chinese language democracy activists relationship again to Tiananmen. Many believed that America had the power to change Beijing’s plan of action. They had been improper. What the US might have provided was a haven, but it surely didn’t.
Washington made no particular provision for Hong Kongers who wished to to migrate to the US. Cruz, however his present of solidarity, killed a invoice in December 2020 that included provisions for momentary protected standing for Hong Kongers and expedited sure refugee and asylum purposes. In a self-aggrandizing memoir, Pompeo wrote that he wished he had finished extra to punish China over Hong Kong, however he made no reference to Joshua Wong.
The main target in Washington has moved on from Hong Kong to Taiwan. The island is below fixed army risk from Beijing, which claims the territory as its personal, regardless that the Chinese language Communist Occasion has by no means managed it. However for these in Taiwan who cherish their democracy, Hong Kong’s story gives a cautionary story. America gave Hong Kong’s trigger its vocal backing, then deserted town in its time of biggest want.
This text has been tailored from Shibani Mahtani and Tim McLaughlin’s new ebook, Among the many Braves: Hope, Wrestle, And Exile In The Battle For Hong Kong And The Future Of International Democracy.
By Shibani Mahtani and Timothy McLaughlin
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