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Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, center, who founded newspaper Apple Daily, is arrested by police officers at his home in Hong Kong, Monday, August 10, 2020. © AP Photo

Last week I was “sanctioned” by the Chinese government, whatever that means, along with six members of Congress and the leaders of four other U.S.-based human rights organizations.

It’s unclear what the sanctions will actually do, but the Chinese government said they were a tit-for-tat response to Washington’s recent imposition of sanctions on Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and 10 other officials in Hong Kong and mainland China for their role in the continuing crackdown on Hong Kong’s freedoms and rule of law.

The sanctions against me and the other Americans are a plain effort by Beijing to claim that the people of Hong Kong are being manipulated by foreigners. They are also an effort to divert attention from Beijing’s intensifying repression.

The sanctions were announced just hours after Hong Kong police arrested the pro-democracy publisher Jimmy Lai and raided the headquarters of his independent and popular Apple Daily. On the same day, nine others were arrested, including Lai’s two sons and pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow. All were accused of posing threats to “national security,” although the only conceivable threat was to the Chinese Communist Party’s plans to take away Hong Kong residents’ rights.

More insidiously, the sanctions represent Beijing’s latest efforts to rewrite the reality of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests. One can never be certain of what Chinese President Xi Jinping thinks, but by all indications he sees the protests as a profound threat because they show what people really believe when given the freedom to say so.

The Chinese Communist Party likes to present itself as governing with the consent of the people. It claims the Chinese on the mainland welcome its rule despite the brutal repression, the silencing of dissent and the absence of real elections.

Hong Kong gives the lie to that pretense. It shows that when given the opportunity to express themselves, the people want freedom, the rule of law, human rights and democracy, like people everywhere. They have expressed that desire by periodically taking to the streets in enormous numbers. And they showed it in November when pro-democracy candidates won local elections overwhelmingly. That electoral showing seems to be why Lam’s government has disqualified pro-democracy candidates for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and, in any event, postponed those elections for a year.

What better way to try to neutralize the power of Hong Kong’s example than by pretending that the city’s pro-democracy movement is the result of nefarious foreign influences? That is apparently why Lai was accused of “collusion with foreign forces,” as if this leading Hong Kong businessman who has devoted his life to the pro-democracy cause would need foreign guidance. Chow faced similar accusations even though she has spent a third of her life seeking democracy for Hong Kong, starting when she was 15.

That is also why Beijing imposed sanctions on me and the others for supposedly having “behaved badly” toward Hong Kong. I received a taste of this scapegoating when Beijing barred me from entering the semi-autonomous Chinese territory in January to release Human Rights Watch’s annual World Report, in which my introductory essay spotlighted Beijing’s assault on human rights. The Chinese government contended then that Human Rights Watch was “responsible for political unrest in Hong Kong,” as if we have the capacity to mobilize 2 million Hong Kong people to take to the streets.

Aside from condescendingly painting the people of Hong Kong as having no agency on their own, the thought is laughable to anyone who has met Hong Kong’s brave pro-democracy activists or seen the vast pro-democracy protests on the city’s streets. But Beijing’s intended audience isn’t informed observers. It’s the rest of the people across China.

Beijing has apparently calculated that one of the best ways to prevent Hong Kong’s democracy movement from spreading to the mainland and jeopardizing the Communist Party’s rule is to make it seem foreign. Given the mainland’s highly censored media environment, Beijing seems to hope that any snippets of news that people in China might nonetheless receive about Hong Kong — or any ideas about rights — can be countered by the foreign-influence explanation.

Xi Jinping likes to present himself as a strongman with boundless strength and confidence. But a dictatorship built on such lies is brittle. So, in a sense, I welcome Beijing’s sanctions, not only because I am proud to stand behind Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists, but also because the sanctions demonstrate how powerful their message is.

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