Amid an explosion of violent lawlessness in American cities, the national political press has directed its focus to one municipality in particular—Portland, Oregon. But media outlets have not devoted their attention to the rampant criminality and property destruction plaguing the city. Rather, they’ve focused on the occasional heavy-handedness of efforts to restore law and order.
In the weeks that elapsed since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Portland has been witness to nightly demonstrations. In recent days, those protests have once again taken on a menacing character. Last week and over the weekend, hundreds of demonstrators engaged in targeted violence that Portland police retroactively deemed a “riot.” Police patrol vehicles were vandalized. Officers were assaulted. The Portland Police Association’s building was briefly set alight.
National political media was alerted to the escalating situation in the city, not by the deteriorating security situation but from the ominous comments of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, who repeatedly called the demonstrators “lawless anarchists” and presaged a federal response to the violence that materialized over the weekend. The Trump administration did, in fact, dispatch U.S. Marshals Special Operations Group and U.S. Customs and Border Protection to protect any federal property that was imperiled by the riots. Those units were accused of recklessly misusing less-than-lethal ordnance, failing to properly identify themselves, and literally “abducting people”—shoving demonstrators into unmarked vans and shuffling them off to who knows where.
The administration’s critics were incensed. “We live in a democracy, not a banana republic,” read a statement from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer condemning the White House’s “egregious abuses of power.” Both of Oregon’s U.S. senators and two Democratic House members accused the administration of resorting to “authoritarian tactics, adding: “These actions are chillingly reminiscent of autocratic governments that ‘disappear’ critics and opponents.”
That these charges still have some compelling power over the liberal imagination–even though the press has now had access to these federal detainees, who were processed, Mirandized, and subsequently released–is a testament to the mania of the moment. There can be no doubt that the administration pursued every remedy to the lawlessness in Portland without regard for optics. And yet, federal officials operated within the bounds of their legal authority and jurisdictional parameters. That is a far cry from “authoritarianism”—hyperbole that is rendered even more distasteful by the ongoing example Chinese officials are setting in Hong Kong.
After more than a year of unrest, mass demonstrations, and extrajudicial violence from both uniformed and unidentifiable executors of state power, the Chinese government has essentially stripped the city of Hong Kong of its special status within Beijing’s orbit. The Chinese Communist Party wasted no time imposing its will on the unruly city—ferreting out the leaders of the pro-democracy movement and intimidating anyone around the world who had aided their efforts to keep Hong Kong free. “If you haven’t tasted what tyranny is, be prepared, because tyranny is not comfortable,” warned Bao Pu, one of the city’s few remaining independent publishers. He wasn’t kidding.
The instant that Hong Kong’s new national-security law (which criminalizes forms of political expression regarded as a threat to Communist rule) came into effect, officials loyal to Beijing began executing mass arrests and violently dispersing crowds of dissenters. Pro-democracy literature has begun disappearing from the city’s book stores and libraries. School teachers who were among the millions of Hong Kong residents who took to the streets in 2019 and 2020 to protest this new law have been reprimanded or, in some cases, dismissed and rendered persona non grata. Independent and foreign-owned media organs are abandoning their presence in a city they can no longer cover objectively. Liberal activists have fled Hong Kong’s shores, fearing the real and tangible consequences that are now associated with their political beliefs.
The heavy hand of the CCP has not limited its reach to within the confines of the so-called “special administrative region.” A chilling Reuters report indicates that a number of multi-billion-dollar global wealth-management firms are responding to Chinese pressure and scrutinizing their ties to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrators. The goal, it would seem, is to transform these liberal activists into living shadows—barred from successfully navigating the international commercial environment as a result of their pro-democratic political convictions. “The designation, called politically exposed persons, can make it more difficult or altogether prevent people from accessing banking services,” Reuters reported. Some banks are reportedly engaged in background checks on their clients that go as far back as the 2014 “umbrella movement” demonstrations against Beijing. To maintain access to Chinese capital, these firms—many of them Western—are more than willing to throw their enlightened political inheritance to the wolves.
If you want to know what it really looks like when an enclave of classically liberal and autonomous governance is usurped by an illiberal central political authority, Hong Kong—not Portland—is the form that takes. If shame weren’t a commodity in short supply these days, those who are now insisting that the Trump administration is engaged in some form of violent, extralegal political persecution might think twice about issuing such an insulting accusation.