On the morning of June 30, 2020, Joshua Wong walked into an workplace tower known as the St. John’s Constructing, instantly 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 the town the place he had spent virtually half of his younger life combating 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 probabilities by interesting to the conscience of essentially 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 time 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 tougher line on Beijing and calling for Washington to impose sanctions towards 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 legislation that successfully criminalized dissent and reengineered the very character of a as soon as freewheeling metropolis. These discovered responsible beneath its provisions might be sentenced to jail for all times.
Now Hong Kong’s political teams and civil-society organizations had been making ready to disband. Retailers had been pulling protest artwork off their partitions. Folks had been promoting residences and saying goodbyes. Lots of Wong’s closest allies had booked tickets to international international locations the place they meant to hunt asylum. However Wong didn’t have that choice: His passport had been confiscated by the police.
If his renown was a vulnerability, Wong reasoned, it may additionally be his path out. The U.S. authorities maintained a number of places of work within the St. John’s Constructing, and Wong had arrange a routine assembly with two American diplomats.
“I don’t wish to go away,” Wong advised them because the assembly ended. “I wish 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, no less than 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 keen to enterprise for the democratic opponents of the Chinese language Communist regime?
Back in 1989, america appeared to have weighed this downside 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 methods. 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 challenge 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 educational Perry Hyperlink, who was a longtime good friend, scrambled into the U.S. embassy compound. McKinney Russell, a diplomat and polyglot who was the pinnacle 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 may discredit him and the Chinese language democracy motion: The Communist Social gathering would dismiss Fang as a pawn of america, 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 might be “welcomed by the president of america.”
Russell and Burghardt raced to the Jianguo Resort. 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 america negotiated their protected 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 best way they did. On prime 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 international soil. However the administration’s final concern, Burghardt advised us, was that “no matter what we mentioned or how we recounted what had occurred, the story would all the time be that we kicked them out and so they obtained arrested.” And so america broke the principles to guard the Fangs. “It’s a form of fascinating instance of the strain that all the time exists in American international coverage, between the realist, strategic strategy and the necessity to proceed to uphold and to show our values,” Burghardt advised us.
Fang and his household ultimately 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 apply.”
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 social gathering strains praised Hong Kongers for standing as much as China in protection of freedom of speech, the precise 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 the 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 mentioned. 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 wrestle 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. The complete U.S.-Chinese language relationship, for Trump, got here right 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 america 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 might attraction to these contacts for assist.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a gathering over a safe telephone line along with his closest advisers on Could 23, 2020. Particulars of China’s national-security legislation had been nonetheless not public, however Pompeo was making ready to answer its implementation by asserting that America not thought-about Hong Kong sufficiently autonomous to warrant separate therapy beneath U.S. legislation. He wished coverage recommendations on what ought to comply with.
The advisers threw out a protracted listing of punishments: enacting sanctions towards prime officers, scrapping coaching packages 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 executed this. Canada and Australia had been additionally engaged on such schemes. And admitting Hong Kongers wasn’t simply charitable. America may provide 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 choice included an inventory of “sizzling” measures (a maximalist strategy); the second, “chilly” ones; and the final, in-between.
The “sizzling” listing comprised actions that had nothing to do with Hong Kong however that China hawks had lengthy sought the chance to take, reminiscent of 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 mentioned, ‘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 realize, 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 Individuals.’”
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 a lot of the different measures. As one senior official mentioned: “So now we’re going to be eager about Taiwan. We have to be eager about the following steps and saying, Look, for those who’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 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 fully 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 provide, and that the workplace tower didn’t provide the safety of a diplomatic compound. In Washington, Ngo took the matter up with one in all 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 go the message on to his boss, however nothing modified.
On July 1, the national-security legislation handed. The diplomats’ positions had been the identical: Wong couldn’t enter the consulate and couldn’t apply for asylum from exterior america. 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 title and even enhancing his tweets. Now he wrote an e mail above Wong’s signature to the secretary of state. “I need nothing greater than to proceed to combat for democracy and freedoms in my residence,” it learn. “However there may be legit hazard that I develop into a chief goal of arrest and detention … I request U.S. safety in order that I could apply for asylum, together with as needed 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 prime officers to debate Wong’s request. They instantly dominated out sheltering him on the U.S. consulate in Hong Kong. Plans had been already beneath strategy to shut the Chinese language consulate in Houston, and when the announcement got here, Beijing would probably retaliate. If Wong was hiding within the U.S. consulate, Beijing may shut it down. Or Beijing may demand Wong’s launch in trade for American prisoners—it may snatch Individuals off the streets in Hong Kong and maintain them in arbitrary detention for this function.
The officers thought-about covertly extracting Wong from Hong Kong as a substitute. However Hong Kong’s geography was unforgiving—the town shared a land border solely with mainland China, which meant that the one escape could be by boat throughout the Taiwan Strait or south towards the Philippines. Wong would danger encountering the Chinese language Coast Guard in these waters, and American involvement may make for a global incident. Choices dwindled. Quickly the officers got here to consider that none remained.
Pompeo and his advisers determined that america may 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 steadiness between the 2,” one senior official concerned within the course of advised us. “In the long run, you realize, on the seventh flooring of the State Division, nationwide curiosity gained 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 information. Pottinger’s deputy, Kanapathy, advised us that concern of what Beijing would do in response was the “absolute flawed” motive to refuse to assist Wong: “If you happen to can’t do what I believe lots of people would say is the precise factor [because] you’re afraid they’re going to do the flawed factor, then you definitely’ve already misplaced.”
The State Division’s determination was, unusually, saved 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 keeping with one Hill staffer. At one level, a fellow Hong Kong activist named Nathan Regulation, who had slipped away to London simply earlier than the national-security legislation handed, met with Pompeo in non-public, elevating Wong’s plight instantly 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 fees of subversion beneath the national-security legislation.
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 flawed. What america may have supplied was a haven, but it surely didn’t.
Washington made no particular provision for Hong Kongers who wished to to migrate to america. 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 functions. In a self-aggrandizing memoir, Pompeo wrote that he wished he had executed 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 beneath fixed navy risk from Beijing, which claims the territory as its personal, despite the fact that the Chinese language Communist Social gathering has by no means managed it. However for these in Taiwan who cherish their democracy, Hong Kong’s story affords a cautionary story. America gave Hong Kong’s trigger its vocal backing, then deserted the town in its time of biggest want.
This text has been tailored from Shibani Mahtani and Tim McLaughlin’s new e book, Among the many Braves: Hope, Battle, And Exile In The Battle For Hong Kong And The Future Of International Democracy.
By Shibani Mahtani and Timothy McLaughlin
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