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Marco Rubio’s Nobel Nod Hurts Hong Kong Freedom Fighters

Republican lawmakers may think they’re being tough on China by nominating three young leaders of Hong Kong’s democracy movement—but they just played right into Beijing’s hands.

Chris McGrath/Getty

HONG KONG—Joshua Wong Chi Fung, Nathan Law Kwun Chung, and Alex Chow Yong Kang. These three young men were nominated in early February for the Nobel Peace Prize by Republican lawmakers—including Sen. Marco Rubio, who heads the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

Their names elicit tides of mixed emotions in Hong Kong. They command some respect: The young men were critical figures of the 2014 Umbrella Movement that involved a 79-day takeover of key roads and public squares in the city, when pro-democracy citizens of Hong Kong set up temporary camps in an unprecedented protest. The three are perpetual figures in the city’s news cycles as fallout from the clearing of Umbrella is still unfolding over three years later.

However, by nominating the trio for the Nobel, Republican politicians inadvertently played into Beijing’s hands.

It is a knee-jerk reaction for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to deride dissent as the consequence of “foreign interference.” Hong Kong’s top political leader in 2014 laid the blame for street occupations at the feet of “external forces,” suggesting that the West was behind reactions against disintegrating freedoms. When American officials make symbolic gestures of support in such a public manner, they are casting a shadow over a homegrown resistance movement, wrangling the core beliefs of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp for their own agenda of making it into the headlines. To the supporters of the CCP, this nomination confirms that the instigators in Hong Kong are indeed backed by Western powers (albeit inefficiently).

Meanwhile, three young men in Hong Kong are being thrown under the bus, and an entire campaign to take back some measure of self-determination is incrementally discredited—just as Beijing wants it.

Wong, Law, and Chow were tried in Hong Kong last year and sentenced to jail terms that lasted from six to eight months, making them the city’s first prisoners of conscience. Wong, who is 21 years old—the youngest of the three, and the most recognized among them due to his outspokenness and a portrait shot by James Nachtwey that appeared on the cover of Time magazine—received a second prison sentence for three months after being convicted of contempt of court. Right before the hearing, Chow said, “Room for resistance is shrinking.”

Chinese state media outlet Global Times immediately branded the American lawmakers’ move as “ludicrous,” but Beijing isn’t worried about the nomination picking up steam and moving forward. The supporters of Wong, Law, and Chow in Hong Kong aren’t holding their breaths either.

The last Chinese dissident to win the Nobel Peace Prize was Liu Xiaobo, who spent years incarcerated as a political prisoner, and eventually died of liver cancer in 2017 while in custody.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists have been crippled since the Umbrella Movement was broken up in late 2014. Though six young faces—whose political ideals were sculpted by those days of streets protests against Beijing’s policies—were elected into Hong Kong’s legislative council in September 2016, the start of their term was marred by bungled stunts. When they were meant to read a 77-word oath and declare their intention to serve the city, one unfurled a banner that read: “Hong Kong is not China.” Another pledged his allegiance to “the People’s Republic of Shina,” using a word that was once a derogatory Japanese term when referring to China. Worse yet, another would-be lawmaker twisted the term further to call the People’s Republic as “the People’s Re-fucking of Shina.”

It was a strange day to see pro-democracy individuals, about to take office, becoming bedfellows with conservative Japanese imperialists. There was an absence of dignity and gravitas expected from leaders with a moral high ground. Many were disappointed to see the incredible disrespect to those who wasted their ballots in the legislative election. The pro-democracy camp has managed to alienate many of its supporters, who were committed to action on the street not so long ago. Now, their calls for support have become as effective as sermons by soapbox preachers.

Hong Kong is more divided than ever. Those born and bred in the city bemoan the fact that they do not have a say in the process of government, specifically in choosing their political leader, which is selected by a body of 1,200 members of the city’s political and business elite. On a more personal level, newcomers from mainland China are still often viewed with prejudice, and are blamed for a plethora of problems—a cost of living that is rising at an insane rate, the lack of feasible job opportunities, and more—particularly if they don’t speak Cantonese, a dialect that is widely used in southeast China.

There’s no reason to think that Rubio and his cohorts understand any of this. The Republican Party might be playing the “tough on China” card, but it is bolstering Beijing’s assertion that the West is attempting to destabilize East Asia’s superpower. Hong Kong’s flag-wavers of democracy were already dead in the water. Gestures from abroad—from America—however sincere or otherwise, are as empty as windless sails.