The last week of May began with the dictator in Belarus hijacking a commercial passenger plane in Europe so he could imprison a young dissident journalist. The week ended with the dictator in China hijacking the courts in Hong Kong so he could imprison dissidents there.
It might seem that it has been a bad week for democracy and the rule of law. But instead, it will be a week remembered for calling the democratic community of nations out of their pandemic fixation to once again stand together on human rights.
Roman Protasevich of Belarus is the 26-year-old editor-in-chief of an effective opposition media outlet who terrified the Belarusian leader into dispatching a fighter jet to collect him. Protasevich now seems to have been tortured into ‘confessing’ that he organized protests.
Among the Hong Kongers sentenced Friday for similar democratic protests is 25-year-old Figo Chan, who travelled to Canada a year and half ago as the joint recipient on behalf of the People of Hong Kong of the 2019 John McCain Prize for Leadership in Public Service at our annual forum in Halifax.
Slender in stature, but a giant of the human spirit, Figo’s defiance is an example to freedom-loving people everywhere: “Today is not an End Game,” he wrote in his Chinese language plea statement that was posted to his Facebook page in the days before his jailing. “We can only hold on to our beliefs, continue to fight against tyranny, and win the support of more people,” he added.
Whenever brave individuals such as Figo and Roman are imprisoned, it is easy to believe that it means dark days for democracy. Indeed, that is exactly what the dictators on either side of the Eurasian landmass want you to believe.
But the EU was not deterred by Belarus and immediately issued new sanctions against the regime.
Of course, Belarus’s small size makes it easier to address its transgressions than those of China, whose population is more than a hundred times larger.
Still, there are solid reasons to be optimistic about the future of democracy and not to be intimidated by authoritarian dictators, be they of the small Belarusian or the enormous Chinese variety.
First, the democratic world has woken up and is pushing back. Only the most naïve — or those who have been bought off — retain any illusions that China is anything other than an aggressive dictatorship that will crush dissent both at home and abroad so long as it is allowed to do so.
In Washington, after suffering its own version of a democratic deficit that culminated with an attack on its Capitol building, a new president is specifically emphasizing the merits of democracy. In London, the government banned Chinese telecom giant Huawei from its 5G networks.
And in Ottawa, the House of Commons recently passed a unanimous motion in support of our giving the 2020 John McCain Prize to President Tsai of Taiwan, despite protests from Beijing.
Second, China’s band of appeasers in the West is dwindling. Because of the actions China is taking against well-known democracy activists in Hong Kong, those who advocate ignoring China’s human rights abuses in favor of closer engagement are no longer taken as seriously as they once were.
Increasing oppression in Hong Kong is not just wrong in itself, but is also a flagrant violation of the “One Country, Two Systems” agreement that Beijing signed into international law with Great Britain prior to the 1997 handover from British rule.
From promises on climate change to the human-rights conditions of its minority communities in advance of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022, to the origins of the coronavirus, the democratic world has less and less reason to believe anything China says.
Third, while governments can and should push back against Beijing’s violations of human rights, democracies are evolving in such a way that it is no longer only the politicians who get involved.
As Beijing prepares to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, its crimes will come under the microscope like never before.
Who will be the first Olympic hockey player to raise a poster of Figo Chan on the ice in Beijing alongside pictures of Michaels Kovrig and Spavor– two Canadian citizens taken hostage by China more than two years ago?
Who will pledge with likeminded people across the world to no longer buy Chinese products made with forced labor?
Who in the crowd will chant justice for the Muslim Uyghurs of Western China whose voices are systematically being silenced?
The imprisonment of Figo Chan and his compatriots in China, just like Roman Protasevich in Belarus, is a sign of authoritarian weakness, not strength.
It is Figo and indeed all individuals willing to stand up for democracy and human rights who demonstrate real strength. And now is the time for the democratic community of nations to do the same.
Peter Van Praagh is President of HFX, whose annual Halifax International Security Forum is held November 19-21 in Halifax.
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