Acton Institute Powerblog

China’s crackdown knocks Hong Kong off list of economically free nations

2019 demonstration in Hong Kong against the national security law. (Photo credit: Jimmy Siu / Shutterstock.com.)

One of the perennial realities of modern history is that Hong Kong ranks near the top of any list of the most economically free nations. But 2020 altered history in many unforeseen ways.

For the first time ever, Hong Kong did not appear on the Heritage Foundation’s 2021 Index of Economic Freedom at all.

Heritage’s annual report explains that the tally includes only “independent countries where governments exercise sovereign control of economic policies,” so it must exclude Hong Kong and Macau. “Hong Kong and Macau, as Special Administrative Regions, enjoy economic policies that in many respects offer their citizens more economic freedom than is available to the average citizen of China, but developments in recent years have demonstrated unambiguously that those policies are ultimately controlled from Beijing.”

The past year has witnessed the People’s Republic of China tighten its grip on Hong Kong. Last summer, Beijing imposed an Orwellian new “national security law” which criminalized ill-defined acts of “sedition,” galvanizing pro-freedom demonstrators to demand that the Chinese Communist Party respect Hong Kong’s traditional independence.

Entrepreneur and Apple Daily publisher Jimmy Lai became the law’s most prominent victim. Police arrested the Roman Catholic dissident on a series of dubious charges before formally charging him last December 10 with violating the national security law. Authorities released Lai, the winner of the Acton Institute’s 2020 Faith and Freedom Award, on bail – but reversed themselves just eight days later and transferred him to a maximum security prison.

Last week, judges ruled that prosecutors had established the legal threshold necessary to bring Lai to trial.

His plight has thus far received no public condemnation from Pope Francis or the current local church hierarchy.

However, last Sunday Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Burma called for expanding the Worldwide Day of Prayer for the Church in China, held each May 24, into an eight-day observance known as an octave. And retired Cardinal Joseph Zen has been outspoken about the constriction of rights enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong in general, and Jimmy Lai in particular.

The global community of free-market scholars has also stood by Lai and his embattled, adopted home. Last September, a group of think tanks from 35 nations and territories around the world penned an open letter detailing the PRC’s intensifying crackdown on Hong Kong’s personal and economic freedom. The signatories reassured the international community that they “stand with the people of Hong Kong as their rights and freedoms are threatened by the actions of the Communist Party of China.”

“A strong global response is critical,” they wrote.

The Heritage Foundation notes that, in the future, any economic liberalization enjoyed by Hong Kong or Macau would be attributed to the PRC.

Additional reading:

Hong Kong and the enduring value of the Declaration of Independence

Jimmy Lai faces life in prison under new ‘national security law’ charges

Jimmy Lai, 2020 Acton award recipient, arrested and denied bail

‘God is always at my center’: Jimmy Lai receives Acton Institute’s 2020 Faith and Freedom Award

Jimmy Lai innocent, Pope Francis silent on Hong Kong

Jimmy Lai verdict expected this week

Jimmy Lai: China must embrace ‘Western values’

Pro-democracy media entrepreneur Jimmy Lai arrested in Hong Kong

Meet the two Chinese Christians Donald Trump compared to Thomas Becket

Acton Line podcast: The story of Jimmy Lai’s fight against Chinese oppression

The persecution of Jimmy Lai

For more on Lai’s remarkable life before his legal troubles intensified, see the Acton Institute’s documentary The Call of the Entrepreneur.

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.