China has been doing a lot of warning lately. It's also overly concerned about rights -- its own, not yours.
As America celebrates its independence, it's interesting to take a look at what those warnings convey. That's not least since Chinese President Xi Jinping has been warning President Donald Trump, too.
On July 1, Xi warned Hong Kongers not to get too uppity about tiny insignificant things like the right of freedom of speech. Greater China's financial capital is a great little business center, he said, and don't you worry your little heads about how we run things from Beijing.
Don't start mouthing off about wanting the right to democracy that's promised in Hong Kong's equivalent of a constitution, the Basic Law, he warned. And whatever you do, don't ever mention anything about wanting to be autonomous or self-determined or an independent state or anything so insidious. That's a final warning.
Funnily enough, I ran into Lord Chris Patten today. I'm in Britain for a working vacation, and happened into the last colonial governor of Hong Kong on my way into Wimbledon. Couldn't resist the chance of a selfie ...
It's just days after Hong Kong commiserated over the 20th anniversary of the city's handover back to the mainland. Plenty of Hong Kongers aren't too happy about the way things have been shaping up recently, as I explained just before the fireworks.
Hong Kongers feel their rights are disappearing, something Xi appeared to confirm with his warnings. And a significant number of my friends say they miss Patten, his sharp wit, his willingness to stand up for Hong Kong, and his passion for the city's tasty egg tarts.
Now the Brits were no angels when it came to running Hong Kong. They took it over and used it up without giving it any sort of independence or democracy either. But the Basic Law that China signed into being as it took back the keys from Old Britannia did agree to let Hong Kong's citizens pick their own leader and say what they want.
A Methodist minister that I met while leaving the tennis pointed out that freedom of speech kinda seems to allow the freedom to say what you want. That's the point. But not, apparently, once you've been warned by Xi, the minister said.
Xi warned Hong Kongers that "making everything political or deliberately creating differences" will "severely hinder Hong Kong's economic and social development."
And he warned that "any attempt to endanger China's sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government" or "use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage" against China is "an act that crosses the red line and is absolutely impermissible."
Sabotage I can understand crossing a line. Challenging someone's authority, not so much.
But this is of course the way the Communists would love life to be. The little people get on with the business of making money, leaving the Communists to lead without any inconvenient questions asked -- and, apparently, make even more money in the process.
China back in 2012 did a bit more warning when it blocked Bloomberg on the mainland, after the company ran a story detailing the multimillions that Xi's family had amassed on his rise to the top.
That story has now disappeared into the ether. "Error! Error! Error!" a nice little Bloomberg graphic now says where that page once stood. Bloomberg risked losing a bunch of business by being shut out of China, and its investigative team rapidly evaporated. Error indeed.
Xi's family subsequently started selling down their holdings, which after being revealed were a little inconvenient for the leader of the world's largest socialist state. That became particularly pertinent when Xi launched a crackdown on corruption in his party that most China watchers see at least in part as a purge of his enemies.
Sometimes Xi's warning is implicit. Cross a line, and things start happening without warning. That's when you know you're really in trouble.
The financier Xiao Jianhua, who orchestrated the sale of some of the assets owned by Xi's older sister and brother-in-law, was abducted from Hong Kong over Chinese New Year, escorted away from the Four Seasons by men in suits when most media outlets conveniently shut down. "Assisting with inquiries," he still hasn't surfaced, and Hong Kong's government says they have no right to press on with their questions if China doesn't return their calls.
At the start of 2016, the last of five booksellers disappeared only to appear on the mainland to answer questions about their activities. Those saw them publish books that occasionally revealed embarrassing details about the personal wealth and connections of China's leaders.
One of those abducted says he was kidnapped by Chinese special forces and whisked across the border. He says the authorities then kept him in solitary confinement in the mainland city of Ningbo, and forced him into confessions of acts he did not commit.
In both cases, it looks a lot like Chinese police crossed the border and acted with impunity in Hong Kong, something they're not allowed to do. They have no right to do so according to the Basic Law, as the city's leader, the Chief Executive, made plain. But China apparently can do that if it feels wronged.
China now says that Hong Kong's affairs are a "domestic matter," and the Sino-British Joint Declaration that brought the Basic Law into being is "history and of no practical significance."
Those rights don't count, in other words. But others do, signed or not.
China did a little more warning last week after the U.S. made the "wrong decision" to sell Taiwan $1.42 billion worth of weapons. The sales send a very wrong message to "Taiwan independence" forces, China's U.S. embassy warned, saying the "Chinese government and Chinese people have every right to be outraged."
China should continue to "instruct" the U.S. about Taiwan's proper place under Beijing's wing, and "continue advancing on the right track of China-U.S. relations because this is what truly fits for both countries' long term interests," the Chinese ambassador to Washington said.
Most recently, Xi warned Trump in a phone call that "negative factors" were emerging in the U.S.-China relationship. He didn't get any more specific than that, but the U.S. Navy had just sailed a destroyer, the USS Stetham, past one of the Paracel Islands. China's foreign ministry said the move was a "serious political and military provocation" that "violates China's sovereignty and puts at risk China's security."
An official from the Trump administration said it was merely performing a routine maneuver proving the right to freedom of navigation on the high seas.
The U.S. State Department also recently said that China is one of the world's worst violators in allowing human slavery within its own borders. Instances of sex trafficking, forced labor and bonded servitude rank it right up there with Iran, North Korea and Russia.
China wasn't too happy about that either, issuing another warning. "As we have said repeatedly, no country has the right to speak irresponsibly on China's domestic affairs," a foreign-ministry spokesperson said.
The warnings show that China and the U.S. are re-entering a frosty phase that cools any warmth developed when Xi and Trump met in person back in April at Mar-a-Largo. Trade relations aren't likely to get much help with the U.S. likely to slap China for "dumping" steel on world markets.
That would be another mistake, in China's eyes. A wrong move that no one has the right to make, you'd expect it to say.
Rights aren't worth the paper they're written on if China's on the wrong side of them. But if China feels wrong, all of a sudden, its own rights come back up again.
Rights, wrongs ... whatever is most convenient at the time. What's best for us is best for you. Just don't cross that red line.