It was a disturbing start to a disturbing conversation about how Western democracies should deal with China’s growing authoritarian reflexes on the world stage.
One of the landmark panels at the Halifax International Safety Forum, which was held virtually this year, began on Friday with a grainy, gray video of an elephant being chased and ultimately overpowered by lion pride.
It was a striking visual metaphor for Beijing’s relative isolation as a global power – the fact that China is a powerful nation with few allies, while Western democracies are overwhelming when they act in concert.
There was, however, a palpable sense of dismay among some of the speakers when the conversation turned to whether the international community is a pride of lions or a collection of kittens.
If we don’t believe what we stand for is better, if we don’t believe in the rule of law, in democracy, in freedom, why should anyone else listen to us?– Former UK Defense Secretary Liam Fox
Emily Lau, a former Democratic lawmaker in Hong Kong, issued a sobering warning that China’s extensive political and security crackdown in the former British-administered territory is an acid test of the strength and resolve of the ‘West.
“We are disappearing before the eyes of the world,” Lau said by video conference from Hong Kong. “What is disappearing? Our freedom. Our personal security. The rule of law.”
Appealing to Beijing for fairness and respect “gets us nowhere,” she added.
A year ago, at the same forum, Lau accepted the John McCain Award for Leadership in Public Service. She and Democratic activist Figo Chan represented the people of Hong Kong by accepting the award after months of street protests and violence that caught the world’s attention.
Lau said she hoped like-minded countries with core values of freedom and democracy can work together to “convince China to be reasonable.”
Under an international agreement signed with Britain in the late 1990s, Beijing guaranteed Hong Kong’s system of government, including its political and economic freedom, for half a century. The recent introduction of new security legislation and an ongoing political crackdown violate the spirit, if not the letter, of this agreement, Lau said.
“The way China treats Hong Kong will be very revealing to the whole world of how China behaves,” she said. “If China cannot keep its promise, how can China act as a responsible and respectable member of the international community?”
There has been a lot of international attention focused on Hong Kong over the past year, but Lau said things have only gotten worse during that time – with opposition members withdrawing. in the city legislature, the imposition of the law on national security and the postponement of the elections.
U.S. Democratic Senator Chris Coons – whose name is often mentioned as Washington insiders cripple various candidates for secretary of state in President-elect Joe Biden’s new administration – said one of the top priorities of the new government would reinvigorate. alliances.
However, it can take a lot more than that.
Liam Fox, former British defense secretary, said Western democracies were suffering from a crisis of confidence – doubts that allowed authoritarian regimes to rise and fill space in the developing world.
“If we don’t believe what we stand for is better, if we don’t believe in the rule of law, in democracy, in freedom, why should anyone else listen to us?” Fox said. “I think we need to reaffirm our belief in our core values.”
With tangled supply chains surrounding the world, the task of standing up to China is not just a political responsibility, the top diplomat in the Trump administration said.
“Governments need to do their part,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in recorded remarks. He noted that countries that resisted China have paid the price.
He acknowledged that Canada had “done a good job”, but went on to say that the corporate sector, which brings in huge amounts of money in China, “has a moral responsibility to reflect on the activities in which their companies are engaged, and if it is in the best interests of the national security of their host nation. “
Pompeo made no reference to Canada’s detention of Meng Wanzhou, the Chinese telecommunications leader, or to the imprisonment of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.