Europe's Last Dictator
World News Roundup
America has been very fascinated for the past few years with looking into its own navel and ignoring the rest of the world.
Some years ago, I described America's foreign policy as "Etchasketchistan," a state in which nobody could predict any more who would be the "hawks" and who would be the "isolationists." Encouraged by reactionary partisanship against the Obama administration, Republicans suddenly became skeptical of all intervention overseas. Prompted by Donald Trump, they then became distinctly soft on Russia and other authoritarian regimes—and "tough on China" only when it comes to the trade war, which from the beginning has been the only consistent theme of his foreign policy.
Yet the Democrats haven't exactly flipped to being hawks, and there is arguably a lot of continuity between President Obama's foreign policy and President Trump's—the main continuity being that the US seems pretty content right now to let events in the world take their course without our being particularly involved.
Yet there are some interesting and important things going on out there, many of which we could be turned to America's advantage—if we could be bothered to do it.
The Murder of Hong Kong
The worst thing happening in the world right now is that the mainland Chinese government has responded to Hong Kong's brave resistance to tyranny by clamping down harder.
Earlier this year, they foisted on Hong Kong a "security law" whose upshot, as Doug Bandow puts it, is that "Beijing's Secret Police Rule Hong Kong Now."
The city was once proud of its distinct British-derived legal system, which guaranteed the rights of residents—and provided a solid foundation for its commercial glory. That is being swept away. Despite predictions that Beijing would not be ready to enforce its new national security law in Hong Kong until the fall, Chinese President Xi Jinping's government rushed the legislation...through the National People's Congress. The measure took effect at 11 PM local time on June 30, sight unseen by those now subject to its dictates....
Hong Kong's old legal rules no longer apply. Legislative interpretation will be up to China. A new enforcement office, a national security commission, will be established under "the supervision of the central government." Chinese security agents will operate openly and officially in Hong Kong. Personnel will employ surveillance, including wiretaps, against suspects, who can be held without bail. Trials can be conducted in secret. Cases can be decided by judges rather than juries. Special jurists will be appointed by the territory's chief executive, who in turn is effectively chosen by China. And offenders will in most cases be extradited to the mainland, where they will be tried and (inevitably) convicted and imprisoned.
What that means can be seen in the capital itself, where the professor Xu Zhangrun, one of the last remaining open critics of Xi-ism, was arrested on Monday. Xu has long been under house arrest, but the operation—to detain a 57-year-old academic—involved around 10 different police vehicles and 20 officers. The limited tolerance that Chinese leaders once extended to critics, at home or in Hong Kong, is gone, replaced only with thuggery under the barest guise of law....
The law penalizes separatism, subversion, and terrorism—none narrowly defined. Advocating democracy or independence, and demonstrating without permission, could violate more than one provision. Also illegal would be "colluding with foreign and external forces to endanger national security," which could mean most contacts with any foreigner, especially involving any criticism of China. The law even would apply to overseas activities by nonresidents and foreign nationals, making them subject to prosecution on entering Hong Kong or China. Penalties include up to life imprisonment.
That last provision is very interesting. China always screams that its critics are "meddling in China's internal affairs"—but the regime has no problem passing a law that literally applies to everyone on the planet. I am violating China's "security" law right now just by writing this, with the implication that it will now be a risk for me to travel anywhere that puts me in reach of China's goons.
In practical terms, I am not at much risk. The people at greatest risk are Chinese immigrants with US citizenship, such as Samuel Chu, a US citizen from Hong Kong who just found himself on the regime's wanted list. I wrote recently about birthright citizenship, but China maintains a pretty strict version of bloodline citizenship and tends to regard anyone of Chinese descent as their property, no matter where they live or hold citizenship.
The security law was imposed a few months ago, and now we're starting to see the real push for censorship with the arrest of independent media mogul Jimmy Lai. (The combination of an English first name with a Chinese last name is a signature of Hong Kong's culture, a symbol of their unique combination of British and Chinese traditions.) Lai has since been released on bail and received a hero's welcome.
The Hong Kong pro-democracy figure and media mogul Jimmy Lai received a hero's welcome as he returned to his newspaper after being arrested on allegations of foreign collusion, while Chinese state media labelled him a "genuine traitor."
Lai, his sons, senior executives from his Next Digital media company and others including the activist Agnes Chow were detained under Beijing's national security law on Monday....
Most of the 10 arrested were released on bail late on Tuesday night.
Lai's return to Apple Daily on Wednesday was livestreamed by staff, who lined the building's stairwell which days earlier had been full of uniformed police officers. They cheered and applauded as he entered and walked through the newsroom to his office, stopping to hug his chief executive officer, Cheung Kim-hung, who was also arrested, and joking that it was lucky he had not been sent to the mainland.
"I'm very touched, we will fight on," Lai said. "We have the support of the Hong Kong people. We can't let them down."
Lai is now urging the people of Hong Kong to settle down for a long, grim period of resistance.
"When I was in custody I could not sleep.... I was thinking, if I knew that was going to happen to me now, [with] even more hardship [on the way], would I have done the same thing?
"I would not have [done things] another way—this is my character," he added.
However, he warned protesters that they would now have to be "more cautious in our resistance to preserve our rule of law and freedom," as the sweeping new security law made the environment more dangerous for activists. "We have to be more careful and creative in [our] resistance...we can't be as radical as before—especially young people—because the more radical [we are] the shorter lifespan we have in our fighting.
"We have to really use our brain and patience, because this is a long fight."
I applaud and deeply appreciate the defiant spirit of Jimmy Lai and the people of Hong Kong. They do have a long fight, because there is not much anyone can do to help them. They have to hope that Xi Jinping's neo-totalitarianism will lead to so many other disasters that eventually it will fall apart of its own accord.
That's a pretty good bet, over the long term. In the short term, however, mainland China is very large and powerful and currently under the control of a power-crazed dictator. If Xi wants to crush Hong Kong, he can make a good go of it, and there's not much we can do to stop him.
It would be interesting to speculate just how much pressure the United States could bring to bear, in reaction either to the suppression of Hong Kong or to the vast network of concentration camps the Xi regime has built in Xinjiang. But that's just speculation, because we're not really going to try. The Trump administration did revoke the special trade status we gave Hong Kong in recognition of its greater freedom and rule of law.
But as I said above, Donald Trump views foreign policy almost exclusively through the lens of trade war, so he actually seems to be gloating over the murder of Hong Kong and musing that China's dictator did him a favor.
Well, look, for years Hong Kong has been making a lot of money...that we could have been making.... We're going to make a lot more money because they're not going to be competitive.... So it's a little bit tough from certain standpoints, but we will do very well by not having a good competitor.
It appears that Trump is trying to say something true here: that Hong Kong's economy will not be as strong because "it can't be with government running it." But then his nationalist, zero-sum view of the world kicks in and he presents the crushing of freedom as being good for America because it undermines a competitor.
It's true, though, that China is going to pay a big price for this. Japan—one of China's most important trading partners—is incensed by the arrest of Agnes Chow, a young Hong Kong protest leader whose knowledge of Japanese has made her a popular figure there, lauded as the "Goddess of Democracy."
And look, we have the whole history of the 20th Century to show us that when you kill individual rights and the rule of law, the result is massive corruption, economic, intellectual, and cultural stagnation, and ultimately decay and collapse. Chinese leaders who want to return to the days of Mao might want to reflect on how his system turned out the first time around.
Hezbollah's Taggart Tunnel Disaster
Speaking of the disastrous consequences of corrupt and despotic systems, you have probably already seen the spectacular and apocalyptic video of the massive explosion that destroyed the port of Beirut and caused damage throughout the city.
If there's one place where it's OK to indulge in wild conspiracy theories, it's Lebanon, a chaotic country at the nexus of various scheming powers. So initially a lot of us suspected that this was an accidental detonation of weapons being stored by the Iranian-backed theocratic faction Hezbollah, which controls the port.
Instead, it's turning out to look more like sheer incompetence. The explosion seems to have been caused when welders were trying to close up a gate through which thieves were stealing goods from warehouses. They set off a spark that ignited an impounded shipment of fireworks, which just happened to be right next to 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been improperly stored.
See an interesting explanation from a chemist on how exactly the explosion would have occurred.
Naturally, when there is a disaster caused by incompetence on this scale, the Russians are involved. The ammonium nitrate had been sitting at the port for decades after being impounded from a dilapidated Russian freighter under somewhat murky circumstances.
One of my readers referred to this as Beirut's equivalent of the Taggart Tunnel Disaster, though on an even larger scale. It's the consequence of a corrupt and tyrannical system driven by looting, which leads to a flagrant violation of safety rules, killing a large number of people and destroying an economically vital asset. How is Beirut going to recover from this without an operational port?
The result has been public outrage, expressing in "mostly peaceful" protests—meaning that people are throwing rocks at the police and setting government buildings on fire—and the resignation of most of Lebanon's top political leadership.
The demonstrators erected mock gallows in what were dubbed "Judgment Day" protests, as grief gave way to anger after more than 154 people were killed and dozens more remain missing. Over 5,000 people have been injured.
Effigies of prominent political leaders, including former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, were hanged from nooses, in some of the most explicit signs of public outrage the country has seen in years.
Protesters held signs reading, "Here is where the nooses should be hung." The mock gallows have become a key symbol of the demonstrations, which are demanding that those responsible for the Tuesday's blast are held accountable, as well as against corruption and mismanagement of the country.
Unfortunately, this is not likely to be enough. Lebanon's dysfunctional politics are driven in part by the general tribalism of a country long split into a multitude of ethnic and religious factions. But the main driver of the chaos is the Shiite faction Hezbollah, which exerts dominant power thanks to backing from Iran. As with Hong Kong, the locals can try their best to resist Iran's malign influence, but for now, at least, it is still too large and powerful to be shaken off.
Then again, you never quite know when the power of a tyrannical regime will break.
Europe's Last Dictator
Belarus's Alexander Lukashenko has been described as "Europe's last dictator," and there's a good chance he will earn that title by actually being the last. (Incidentally, you will sometimes see his name transliterated as Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Hopefully, we will not have to bother about the spelling for much longer.) Lukashenko consolidated power in rigged elections within a few years of the fall of Berlin Wall and since then has been in charge of a kind of Museum of Stalinism with about 10 million inmates.
Last week, he rigged yet another election, partly by imprisoning one of the leading opposition candidates. So the candidate's wife ran in his stead, and while the regime thought they could safely dismiss her, the best indications are that Svetlana Tikhanovskaya overwhelmingly won the vote. Lukashenko's regime naturally declared him the winner, anyway, but the Belarussian people aren't having it and they have poured into the streets to demand he step down.
Check out an excellent summary in The Bulwark.
Election day began with the Belarus security forces raiding Tikhanovskaya's campaign headquarters, prompting her to go into hiding until she surfaced a few hours later to cast her ballot.
Before the official results had been announced, Tikhanovskaya's campaign declared her the winner based on the results from dozens of polling stations where she was pulling in two to three times as many votes as Lukashenko....
"I will believe my eyes—the majority was for us," Tikhanovskaya said on Sunday after the voting. Her remarks were in reference to visible measures that the opposition had taken during the day of voting. The anti-Lukashenko voters wore special white bracelets on the left hand and folded their ballots in a segmented, "oriental fan" pattern so they would stand out from the standard, centerfold ballot placed in the polling box.
See the visual results of that method here.
The mismatch between how people actually voted and the officially announced vote has led to mass demonstrations.
Upon the announcement that Lukashenko was declared the winner, the city of Minsk exploded with crowds numbering more than 100,000. They were met by water cannons, stun grenades, and rubber bullets. Spent stun grenade cartridges later shown on Belarus opposition channels showed them to be military-grade explosives made in the Czech Republic....
By the end of Sunday evening a riot police van had ploughed into a crowd of protesters and there were no confirmed fatalities from this incident, but one protestor is reported to be in intensive care. There is video footage showing body-armoured and well-armed riot units on the streets of Minsk.
That was last Sunday, but by now it looks like the attempts at suppression are failing. One key indication is that some of the riot police have gone over to the opposition.
At least 50 Belarus security personnel in riot gear dropped their shields and were embraced by anti-government protesters in Minsk, as demonstrators chanted "brothers" at the police....
Another video posted by Belarusian TV station Nexta, shows a police officer named Ivan Kolos saying he refuses to follow "criminal orders." He urged his colleagues to not point guns at peaceful people and be with them instead. He said he would take orders from Tikhanovskaya, not from Lukashenko.
Workers at giant state-owned factories—I said this was a museum of Stalinism—have also gone on strike, and today, there was another massive demonstration against Lukashenko, which dwarfed a rival pro-government demonstration.
But of course lurking behind all of this is yet another larger and more powerful backer of the regime. In Hong Kong, it's the mainland government; in Lebanon, it's Iran; in Belarus, it's Russia. Just as Vladimir Putin has been willing to plunge Ukraine into conflict rather than let it fully leave his orbit, so I don't think he will be inclined to let a free society take root in Belarus. Lukashenko has appealed for his help, but it's revealing that he has been talking much more loudly about Russian support than the Russians have. For various reasons—there is no honor among thieves—there is a lot of pre-existing tension between Putin and Lukashenko, and this may prevent Putin from sending in the Little Green Men.
Reader Alice Meyer drew my attention to an interview about these protests with a Belarussian Objectivist, Jaroslav Romanchuk, who has been promoting Ayn Rand's ideas in Russia and Eastern Europe. Romanchuk talks about this as an opportunity for the West to follow "value-based politics" and to act in support of freedom.
That really jumped out at me, because it seems like a long time since the heady Bush administration days of the "Forward Strategy of Freedom" and the idea that promoting liberty abroad should be a goal of US foreign policy. It seems even longer since the days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which it seemed like dictatorship was on the retreat everywhere. Since then, authoritarian regimes like Putin's in Russia or Xi Jinping's one-man rule in China have recovered, and the advance of liberalism has been very much in doubt.
These recent events in places as disparate as Hong Kong, Lebanon, and Belarus have reminded us that—no matter what the outcome this time around, and even without any kind of active or vigorous American action—dictatorship remains inherently fragile, unstable, and unnatural, and that a spirit of courageous devotion to freedom keeps breaking through.