Lai is one of nine prodemocracy heroes sentenced on Friday by a Hong Kong court. He was given 14 months behind bars, but that's probably just for starters. Prosecutors have announced another six charges against Lai, some of which carry a maximum term of life in prison. Is it conceivable that the Beijing regime would lock up someone as prominent as Lai for the rest of his life?
That is just what it did to Liu Xiaobo , the great Chinese champion of liberty and dignity who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Not only did the country's communist rulers refuse to allow Liu to accept the honor in person, it refused even to allow him out of prison when he contracted liver disease, determined to drive him to an early grave for defending democracy, the rule of law, and an end to censorship. So yes, it is all too conceivable that the same fate could await Lai, the Hong Kong newspaperman.
Lai's fellow defendants — Lee Cheuk-yan, Leung Kwok-hung, Au Nok-hin, Cyd Ho, Albert Ho, Margaret Ng, Leung Yiu-chung — drew prison terms ranging from eight to 18 months. Martin Lee, 82, the venerable "father of democracy" in Hong Kong, was handed an 11-month sentence, suspended for two years. He is the founder of Hong Kong's United Democrats Party and was an elected member of the city's Legislative Council for 22 years. No Hong Kong leader has earned the worldwide respect that Lee commands. But China cares far less about respect than it does about obedience and fear.
When Hong Kong was returned to Chinese control in 1997, Beijing solemnly vowed that economic and political rights in the formerly British-ruled enclave would remain inviolate until at least 2047. In a legally binding Joint Declaration, it stipulated that freedom "of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research, and of religious belief" would "remain unchanged for 50 years."
But China never had any intention of preserving and protecting Hong Kong's civil liberties. Like all communist tyrannies, it regards freedom of thought and political openness as dangerous contagions. Over the past three years, Beijing began to do away with liberal democracy in Hong Kong, its crackdown growing steadily more implacable as it became clear that there would be no pushback from the Free World, from the United Nations , or from the myriad corporations more consumed with making money in China than with defending the human rights of its people.
Under international law, governments may not punish their citizens for organizing or participating in peaceful assemblies, which do not require prior permission by the state. But Beijing cares little for international law. It has achieved its goal, which was to lock up or neutralize the territory's most prominent defenders of democratic liberty. The question now is: Does Washington care?
In its initial dealings with Beijing, the Biden administration has, to its credit, struck a more forceful note than its predecessors. It ought to follow it up by adapting the strategy employed with such effect by the Reagan administration toward the Soviet Union in the 1980s — namely, by turning a public spotlight on China's treatment of dissidents and political prisoners.
Chinese officials should be reminded in every encounter with their US counterparts that Jimmy Lai's health and safety are a matter of strong personal interest to the president of the United States.
One day China will be free. One day the communist repression that has turned one of the world's greatest countries into the planet's largest dungeon will be history. When that day comes, Jimmy Lai, Martin Lee, and Hong Kong's other brave defenders of freedom will be ranked among China's heroes, their courage and self-sacrifice held up as an inspiration to boys and girls yet unborn.
The regime that persecuted them will be remembered with loathing. As for the United States, it has a choice: Will it appease that ruthless regime, or defend those doughty democrats?