It's an image that rolls over and over in her mind. She sees the police, spraying blue chemicals into the crowd. Then she notices her -- a young girl, one of the protestors, writhing as it burns her skin. In a few years, she thinks, that could be her child. "And there is nothing I can do to protect her." Hong Kong, the mother knows, is a ticking time bomb. And the sooner they get out, the better. "What else can you do," she says mournfully, "but leave?"
All across Hong Kong, families just like hers are meeting quietly with agents who can get them out of the country -- to somewhere, anywhere, they can start over. The sad irony, many have said, is that Hong Kong was -- for many of their parents -- that same refuge. Daughters like Leung Yao grew up hearing her father's horror stories of the Chinese cultural revolution, how he fled to this place where the same clouds are starting to gather. Standing in Hong Kong in 1997, watching ominously as the Brits handing the country back to China, the Yaos felt a sudden chill. Just a teenager at the time, Leung had a frightening thought. "Maybe one day we will have to run from the Chinese Communist Party again." Now, that day is here.
Reporter Shibani Mahtani feels the urgency of the locals she interviews almost like a physical presence. From her post in Asia, she watches the lawyers, nurses, doctors, and other professionals getting everything in order to flee. They comb the relocation options in nearby Taiwan, Australia, and Europe, looking at every legal option to migrate and escape. For the protestors, hundreds of thousands of them, the worry about retribution under China's new national security law is real. "...[E]ach and every one of us could be a target," Leung knows. "Even if we love our city, the reality is that our government hates us."
China's "reign of terror" is coming. They are certain of it. Of their friends, one finance expert estimates that 90 percent have "left or are in the process of leaving." "In many ways," he says, "it feels like we are refugees, fleeing a war." For pastors, the signs of trouble loom on the horizon. They know it's only a matter of time until China uses this law to reach its long arm into Hong Kong's churches and crush outspoken believers. It's not a question of "if," Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) agrees, but when. Under this new "independent judiciary," anyone from Hong Kong could be "extradited to the mainland and possibly sent to political prisons and never heard from again."
"When the United Kingdom ceded sovereignty back to Hong Kong or to Beijing in 1997," Senator Cotton explained, "that one country, two systems approach was supposed to last 50 years. Here we are, not even halfway to that point." But if it was going to happen eventually, does it matter if China takes control now? It should, Cotton insisted -- especially considering the message it sends to the world.
"It's another example of how you cannot trust a communist power. We couldn't trust the Soviet Union. We cannot trust Red China either. They made a basic commitment to preserve something like the status quo in 1997. They're grossly violating that status quo, and they're doing so in a thriving, vibrant, democratic society." If Hong Kong loses its rights -- the freedoms of speech, assembly, worship, and so many others, everyone will pay. "All of those brave Hong Kongers, the teenagers and the 20-somethings who have been out the street protesting over the last year... [they] all face grave consequences. We see how Beijing treats Christians on the mainland, smashing churches or breaking into and busting up the so-called house churches where Christians try to worship our God. That's not the way it works in Hong Kong." But that's the way it will work, he warns, if China has its way.
Hong Kong has always been unique -- a sign to the downtrodden Chinese of what could be. And in the end, that's what Beijing fears -- that this vibrant democracy, this blossoming economy, will show their people another way. A better way. The Chinese people long to live in freedom, Senator Cotton laments, "to provide for their families and give their children [opportunities they never had]." But "they are not allowed to do so by the Communist Party. Every once in a while, he says, "they can see... occasional glimpses of what it's like in Hong Kong." And that, more than anything, is what terrifies the Chinese authorities. They can't afford to let their people see the shining example of Hong Kong and imagine a life out from under the thumb of the communist regime.
So they're willing to violate the agreement, even risk the economic consequences, to broaden the crackdown. But those consequences, Cotton insists, are coming. The U.S. has already announced that it will stop Hong Kong's special trading status. "We're not going to allow Chinese oligarchs and princelings to continue to get rich off of Hong Kong if they are not respecting the rights of Hong Kongers." It's also time, he agrees, for the United States to extend a hand to the people desperately trying to flee these waves of persecution. America's refugee system has been abused in the past, but there's no better time than the present to rethink how we can give these Hong Kong families a chance at a new life.