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Can totalitarianism be dissolved using diplomacy?

1997: Memories of Hong Kong

The 25th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong marked the end of freedom in the territory.

I was one of three personalities representing France at the ceremonies on 1 July 1997 marking the end of a 99-year lease to the British.

As the British troops paraded to the pounding beat of the Auld Lang Sine (It's only a goodbye) with the dignity that only they know how to show on such occasions, the nationalist rhetoric of a Communist Party in full ascendancy and, above all, in the throes of reconquest, was already apparent beneath the posturing of the young Chinese soldiers. They self-confidently vied provokingly with each other with haughty pride.

Margaret Thatcher, who was present, regretted having to "hand over an Asian jewel to the Communists". Tony Blair put on a brave face, despite the circumstances, and Prince Charles, representing the Crown as a veteran of the decolonisation ceremonies, hinted that he had few illusions about what was to come. All understood that with the Union Jack the hopes of a society pulsating with freedom were also being folded.

The Chinese government pledged to maintain Hong Kong's status for 50 years, i.e. freedoms of expression and action that were impossible on the mainland. It has not kept its promise. Twenty-five years later, the Chinese emperor has now victoriously entered the heart of Asian financial capitalism.

We sensed then, under a driving rain, heralding many other clouds, which masked many unspoken intentions, how dark and gloomy the territory's fate would be. Despite the exhortations of Chris Patten, the last visionary governor of the island and its dependencies, whose attempts to prolong the nascent democratic institutions were commendable, it did not take long for the Chinese Communist Party to renege on its word, as all dictatorships do.

Hong Kong will soon take on the sad face of the 4.0 dictatorship that Xi Jinping is imposing on China. Dissenting voices and dissenting opposition are muzzled. Money is king but speech is forbidden.

The future of the country will be written by the Party, with its procession of lies and slogans. "One country, two systems" was the official promise to respect freedoms. In reality, it is just another delusion. As usual, dictators cannot tolerate any departure from their line.

After Putin, his war, his aggression and his lies, imperturbably repeated by his foreign minister, the sinister Droopy of international life, this Chinese foot-in-the-door to democracy announces others. We can but worry about the fate of individual and collective freedoms on a planet that is in decline.

We shall have to prepare ourselves for the great battle that is brewing, for freedom and against dictatorships. We Europeans, who have shown that we can settle our differences peacefully, would like to avoid this. It is not certain that we will succeed, and it is likely that we will soon be forced to confront those who enslave their own people and would progressively like to do the same to us.

By claiming that the only way out of the conflict he has triggered is for Ukraine to capitulate, Putin is forcing us to defeat or at least stop him, whereas so far the West has been more than reasonable in refusing to escalate and engage in direct confrontation. We have the strength. Will we have the audacity?

Are we going to continue to see Ukrainians die under dirty Russian bombs and excesses? Are we going to accept this genocide perpetrated under our eyes on European soil for long? Are we going to let dictators determine the agenda of international relations in the name of the cold logic of diplomacy?

Or will we finally appreciate the scale of the challenge posed to us by this dictatorship, on behalf of all the others, and will we respond with legitimate force in the cause of the law?