Commentary Magazine


Topic: Hong Kong

Hong Kong and the Dream of Chinese Democracy

Call me naïve, but I’m a sucker for pro-democracy demonstrations against dictators. Admittedly, whether in Tiananmen Square or Tahrir Square, they don’t always work out well. But there is something thrilling about tens of thousands of people taking to the streets to demand the basic rights that most of us in the West have come to take for granted–knowing, all the while, that there is a real possibility of bloodshed on the part of a brutal regime bent on protecting itself at any cost.

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Call me naïve, but I’m a sucker for pro-democracy demonstrations against dictators. Admittedly, whether in Tiananmen Square or Tahrir Square, they don’t always work out well. But there is something thrilling about tens of thousands of people taking to the streets to demand the basic rights that most of us in the West have come to take for granted–knowing, all the while, that there is a real possibility of bloodshed on the part of a brutal regime bent on protecting itself at any cost.

These thoughts are prompted, of course, by images of all the people who have been occupying the streets of central Hong Kong for three days now to demand direct election of their chief executive without limiting candidates to a list vetted and approved by the Communist Party leadership in Beijing. Police fired tear gas at the demonstrators on Sunday, but that did not disperse them. Now the security forces have backed off to ponder their next move.

From Beijing’s perspective this is a no-win situation. If they send the troops out to clear the streets by force, they will risk international opprobrium–and, perhaps more significant, delay for another generation any hope that Taiwan will agree to voluntarily become part of the People’s Republic of China. After all Beijing’s key selling point to Taipei is that it could enjoy the “one country, two systems” model implemented in Hong Kong after the British left in 1997. If Chinese forces carry out a slaughter in the streets of Hong Kong that message will be exposed as hollow. If, on the other hand, the government caves in to the demonstrators’ demands it could expose Beijing to more demands for democracy from dissatisfied people on the mainland.

There is not much the U.S. can do to affect the situation one way or the other beyond showing clearly where our sympathies lie. There is no doubt a debate going on in the administration as I write this between the usual, predictable parties–the realists who say we have to accommodate ourselves to Beijing at any cost and the human-rights advocates who believe we have to stand up forcibly for the rights of people in Hong Kong and elsewhere around the world.

The Realpolitikers have a better case when they argue for overlooking human-rights violations among our allies–countries such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia whose strategic support we need and where the alternative to an illiberal but pro-American monarchy could well be an Islamist dictatorship that is anti-American. But such considerations should not restrain us from pushing for democracy in countries such as Iran and China and Russia that are most decidedly not our allies–that are, in fact, either rivals or outright enemies.

China is in the midst of a massive defense buildup designed to dominate East Asia while pushing U.S. power out of the region. It is undertaking aggressive maneuvers with its navy against U.S. allies such as Japan and the Philippines. It is mounting nonstop cyber attacks on U.S. computer networks. It supports rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran. And it works hand in glove with Russia to block international action in such countries as Syria. True, China also trades with the U.S. and holds a lot of our debt, but it is hardly our friend: At best it is a rival with whom we can do business but only warily.

In short, we should not be constrained by fears of alienating China from speaking out forcefully about its human-rights violations. The U.S. should champion the cause of Chinese democracy by every means available, much as we once worked by peaceful means to undermine the Soviet bloc. The Hong Kong demonstrations are a sign that Chinese people also want freedom–that even in the most prosperous city in China the people are not willing to trade away their “inalienable rights” for big cars and fancy apartments and the latest in high-tech electronics.

The people of Hong Kong are risking their lives for freedom. We should do what we can–and admittedly it’s not much–to stand with them.

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China’s New Era of Disobedience?

A quarter-century ago, thousands of Chinese students occupied the heart of Beijing, in Tiananmen Square, hoping to push the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) toward democracy. They were crushed, literally, by a government unwilling to surrender any of its political control. The twenty-five years since that 1989 massacre have seen China become perhaps the world’s second-most powerful nation, yet one that is just as politically and socially repressive, if not more so.

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A quarter-century ago, thousands of Chinese students occupied the heart of Beijing, in Tiananmen Square, hoping to push the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) toward democracy. They were crushed, literally, by a government unwilling to surrender any of its political control. The twenty-five years since that 1989 massacre have seen China become perhaps the world’s second-most powerful nation, yet one that is just as politically and socially repressive, if not more so.

While those young students in Tiananmen Square were attempting to create new freedoms for themselves, today’s protests in Hong Kong, by equally young students, are aimed at ensuring that the island does not lose any more of its freedoms. In that sense, they may well be more passionate and potentially explosive.

The immediate cause of the demonstrations being called the “umbrella revolution” was Beijing’s decision not to allow free elections in 2017 for Hong Kong’s chief executive, per the 1984 joint declaration agreement with Great Britain that set the guidelines for post-colonial Hong Kong. Instead, Beijing will allow only a handful of pre-approved candidates on the ballots. Hong Kongers rightly assume this is just the beginning of a broader move to restrict their freedoms, including an independent judiciary and press.

Yet Hong Kong should not be seen in isolation from China’s broader crackdown on any potential liberalization or separatism in areas it controls or hopes to control. As I wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal, Beijing is comfortable risking greater blowback to try and stamp out even moderate voices, such as Uighur academic Ilham Tohti, who was given a life sentence for criticizing the government. China’s military and police presence has been strengthened in both Xinjiang and Tibet in recent years, and there has been no reduction in the military threat to Taiwan. Even smaller issues, such as occupied Indian territory or territorial disputes in the South China Sea, have seen Beijing’s position harden and its military activities increase.

These are worrisome signs that President Xi Jinping, who is just 18 months into a decade-long rule, is comfortable flexing Chinese muscle, intimidating his neighbors, and cracking down on domestic unrest. Whether out of confidence or fear, Beijing is adopting a far more antagonistic attitude that makes it ever harder for it to back down.

That is why what happens now in Hong Kong is so important. If a tiny island of 7 million people can successfully oppose Beijing’s will, then the gates will be opened to the dissatisfied in Xinjiang and Tibet, on Taiwan, and possibly even on the mainland. This is something that Beijing cannot allow. Yet should the People’s Liberation Army move out of their Hong Kong barracks to support the territory’s police, or other pressure be put on the island’s government to suppress the demonstrators, then the fiction of Hong Kong independence and of China’s essentially benign nature will be exploded.

Sadly, such brutality did not prevent China from scaling even greater heights 25 years ago after Tiananmen, but today such an outcome it will mean either a China of far greater strength and influence, or an Asia of greater instability and possibly conflict, or possibly both.

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Nations Swinging Away at the Obama Pinata

White House press secretary Jay Carney, in responding to Hong Kong and China allowing National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden to flee to Moscow, said “The Chinese have emphasized the importance of building mutual trust. And we think that they have dealt that effort a serious setback. If we cannot count on them to honor their legal extradition obligations, then there’s a problem.” He added, “We are just not buying that this was a technical decision by a Hong Kong immigration official. This was a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant, and that decision unquestionably has negative impact on the U.S.-China relationship.” Mr. Carney went out of his way to express “our frustration and disappointment with Hong Kong and China.”

To which the Chinese must be shrugging their shoulders and asking, “Who cares?”

I wonder if it has begun to dawn on the administration that nations are lining up to demonstrate their indifference to, or contempt for, President Obama’s wishes. A headline in the Washington Post today, for example, reads this way: “Through Snowden, Ecuador seeks fight with U.S.” Fine, but only after Hong Kong, China, and Russia get their chance to swing at the Obama piñata. And the Snowden debacle is only the latest, and in some respects the least important, example of this. 

“Nobody’s afraid of this guy,” Professor Eliot Cohen told the Post. “Nobody’s saying there are any real consequences that would come from crossing him – and that’s an awful position for the president of the United States to be in.”

It is indeed; but that is where we find ourselves in the Obama Era.

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White House press secretary Jay Carney, in responding to Hong Kong and China allowing National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden to flee to Moscow, said “The Chinese have emphasized the importance of building mutual trust. And we think that they have dealt that effort a serious setback. If we cannot count on them to honor their legal extradition obligations, then there’s a problem.” He added, “We are just not buying that this was a technical decision by a Hong Kong immigration official. This was a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant, and that decision unquestionably has negative impact on the U.S.-China relationship.” Mr. Carney went out of his way to express “our frustration and disappointment with Hong Kong and China.”

To which the Chinese must be shrugging their shoulders and asking, “Who cares?”

I wonder if it has begun to dawn on the administration that nations are lining up to demonstrate their indifference to, or contempt for, President Obama’s wishes. A headline in the Washington Post today, for example, reads this way: “Through Snowden, Ecuador seeks fight with U.S.” Fine, but only after Hong Kong, China, and Russia get their chance to swing at the Obama piñata. And the Snowden debacle is only the latest, and in some respects the least important, example of this. 

“Nobody’s afraid of this guy,” Professor Eliot Cohen told the Post. “Nobody’s saying there are any real consequences that would come from crossing him – and that’s an awful position for the president of the United States to be in.”

It is indeed; but that is where we find ourselves in the Obama Era.

If there is anything good that might emerge from what has happened to America during the Obama presidency, it might be that we have tested in the real world the theories and ideas that animate Mr. Obama’s progressive foreign policy vision. They include the belief that American power is the source of animosity against us; that serial apologies for America’s past would win us the favor of our adversaries; and that “leading from behind” would increase America’s influence in the world. Each of those myths has been exploded by events. So, too, has Mr. Obama’s belief that placating our enemies would win us their favor (it hasn’t) and that losing wars is the same thing as ending wars (it is not).

Over and over again during the 2008 campaign, and early in his presidency, Barack Obama said he would “restore America’s standing in the world” and make us more “respected.” He has done neither. America today, under Obama, is viewed as feeble, supine, and enervated.

I am reminded of what Ronald Reagan said (in 1980) about America under Jimmy Carter. “Adversaries large and small test our will and seek to confound our resolve,” according to Reagan:

but the Carter Administration gives us weakness when we need strength; vacillation when the times demand firmness. Why?  Because the Carter Administration live in the world of make-believe.  Every day, it dreams up a response to that day’s troubles, regardless of what happened yesterday and what will happen tomorrow.  The Administration lives in a world where mistakes, even very big ones, have no consequence. The rest of us, however, live in the real world.  It is here that disasters are overtaking our nation without any real response from the White House… Who does not feel a growing sense of unease as our allies, facing repeated instances of an amateurish and confused Administration; reluctantly conclude that America is unwilling or unable to fulfill its obligations as leader of the free world? Who does not feel rising alarm when the question in any discussion of foreign policy is no longer, “Should we do something?”, but “Do we have the capacity to do anything?”

Reagan went on to describe the Carter years as “years of weakness, indecision, mediocrity and incompetence.”

What once was, is again. And America, now as then, is paying a high price for the irresolution and weakness of its commander in chief. 

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