TOKYO -- Partway through Natan Sharansky's nine years as a Soviet political prisoner, from 1977 to 1986, he and other inmates learned of U.S. President Ronald Reagan's speech branding Moscow an "evil empire." Word reached them through state propaganda criticizing Reagan, but Sharansky heard a message his captors did not intend.
"The free world understands the real nature of this regime," he recalled thinking. "We were hopeful and optimistic when we felt the free world was with us."
Now Sharansky says democracies must deliver a similar message to Hong Kong activists caught in the shadow of the Chinese Communist Party's national security law, and everyone in what he calls "fear societies."
"It doesn't mean you have to send your troops," the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient said in an online interview with the Nikkei Asian Review. "But you have to demonstrate your solidarity -- that whatever relations you have with China, you will not sacrifice your sympathy, your friendship, your solidarity with Hong Kong."
Conversely, he warned that dissidents will "feel absolutely helpless" if they see the free world largely abstaining for the sake of realpolitik.
Sharansky, 72, made his name in the 1970s as a "refusenik" -- Soviet citizens, mostly Jews, who were refused permission to emigrate.
He became a translator for dissident nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975. But Sharansky was soon arrested on trumped-up espionage and treason charges, and would spend nearly a decade in prisons and a gulag. During long periods in solitary confinement, he said, he played "thousands" of games of chess in his head "to survive mentally when the regime tried to destroy me."
It was only after an international campaign led by his wife, Avital, that he was released in a Berlin prisoner exchange with Western powers. The couple moved to Israel, where Sharansky went into politics. Today, he is chairman of the Institute of the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy; he recently won Israel's $1 million Genesis Prize for achievement and donated the money to organizations fighting COVID-19.
For all its devastating effects, Sharansky thinks the pandemic offers two valuable -- if seemingly contradictory -- lessons.
One is that "there are moments in life when it's very important for people to understand that their strength is to close themselves in their family, their home," he said.
"All the postmodern tendencies of the last 40 to 50 years were that identity, and the nation, the family and home -- it's all prejudice, or something that is restricting people from their desire to be 'people of the universe.'"
The virus, he said, has reminded people that "my home is my fortress."
The second lesson? "It's as if God sent a message to humanity that there are enemies we can deal with only together. Only when you're getting together can you succeed."
Just as COVID-19 was never a matter for any single country, the same goes for human rights, he said. "For the last 60 years, dissidents have been arguing that human rights are not an internal affair of one country."
It is a frequent refrain from China -- that the U.S. should not meddle in Beijing's affairs, be it Hong Kong or the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. At the same time, Trump's tumultuous presidency and the Black Lives Matter protests in U.S. cities have cast doubt on America's standing.
Earlier this month, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying tweeted the infamous image of a Minneapolis policeman kneeling on the neck of George Floyd -- whose death sparked the demonstrations -- next to a photo of a Uighur festival. "Unlike African Americans," she wrote, Uighurs in Xinjiang "enjoy free breathing!"
Yet Sharansky rejects moral equivalence between fear societies and free societies.
"I'm not going to defend police in Atlanta or Minnesota," he said. "The fact that it's a free society doesn't mean that it's ideal. There can be a lot of violations."
But his bottom line is simple: "Can you go to the center of the town square and say whatever you think, and you will not be punished? That's a free society."
This is no longer the case in Hong Kong.
The security law China imposed on June 30 criminalizes shouting slogans or carrying banners with messages the government deems secessionist. Holding up blank placards has become an act of defiance. The authorities' tightening grip amounts to "an attempt to turn even small islands of free society in China into a fear society," Sharansky said.
Though the world's No. 2 economy may seem too powerful to resist, he insisted the Soviet regime also once looked invincible. He thinks the real issue is not China's strength but political will in the West.
Cold War-era U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan came to understand the power of supporting dissidents and establishing "linkage" between diplomatic or economic cooperation and human rights, he said. This worldview persisted "to some extent" through the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush years but, in Sharansky's view, faded as Barack Obama preferred engagement with Iran.
In some ways, the Trump administration has taken a stand since Sharansky spoke with Nikkei. Washington has rescinded preferential economic treatment for Hong Kong in response to the national security law and, earlier this week, blacklisted 11 Chinese companies implicated in alleged violations in Xinjiang. The president has also signed legislation allowing for sanctions against Chinese officials involved in repression of the Uighurs.
But Trump told news outlet Axios that he had held off on the sanctions to avoid compromising negotiations with Beijing. "We were in the middle of a major trade deal," he was quoted as saying.
Sharansky questioned the convictions of the president, who seems willing to seek a deal with anyone.
"With the Trump administration, I don't think it's even anywhere on the agenda," he said, meaning a commitment to linkage. "When the American president says about North Korea's dictator that 'he loves his people and his people love him,' it's such a mockery of the relations between the people and dictatorship."
When it comes to Hong Kong, encroachments on freedoms should have serious consequences, he advised.
"It will be in your interest to refuse free exchange, to refuse free trade with China, to link all this to their behavior toward Hong Kong," Sharansky said. "The moment the free world starts acting in this direction, the mood of citizens in Hong Kong, even those under arrest, will improve greatly" -- just as the "evil empire" speech lifted his own spirits in prison.