The left is exhausted. They have been run ragged by Donald Trump’s four years in the Oval Office. Their daily effort to seek out even the whiff of looming authoritarianism and to suffocate it under a torrent of spirited tweets has left nothing in the tank. But that exhaustion comes at a fateful time.
Even before the onset of a global pandemic, which necessitated restrictions on private activity in the freest of societies, liberal democracy was in retreat. In Latin America, Central and Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia, individual agency has come under attack. Few societies have been as aggressive in their efforts to exert centralized control over every aspect of political and social life as Communist China.
China has taken the opportunity presented by a distracted world to forge ahead with its audacious plan to asphyxiate democracy in the autonomous province of Hong Kong. For months after Beijing announced its intention to impose its will on this former British territory (under the guise of national security), Hong Kong’s freedom-loving people took to the streets in incredible numbers. They waved American flags, sang the U.S. national anthem, and held signs demanding for themselves the same freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Their appeals were heart-rending—anguish that was only heightened by the deaf ears on which they fell.
American institutions generally sided with their commercial interests on the mainland over their affinities for the aspiring democrats in Hong Kong’s streets. President Donald Trump averted his eyes lest he jeopardizes trade negotiations with Beijing. Organizations and firms such as the NBA, Google, and Marriott humiliated themselves in their obsequious efforts to preserve the Chinese Communist Party’s preferred fictions. By contrast, and though it amounted to little more than rhetorical support, Congress and the Democrats seeking their party’s nomination were far more aggressive in their condemnations both of China and of Trump’s acquiescence.
But the passion required to maintain that enthusiasm for democracy soon cooled. In the interim, China has grown bolder. Last week, the People’s Republic moved to oust four pro-democracy lawmakers from the offices to which they were elected. In a show of solidarity, Hong Kong’s 15 remaining opposition lawmakers resigned, promising to continue the “fight of democracy.” But China is not done transforming this once vibrant island of freedom into something far worse. Senior officials within Chinese leadership have ominously telegraphed their intention to “perfect” Hong Kong’s legal system, which likely means that the remaining legal protections for dissenters in Hong Kong will soon be circumvented.
Alas, even those who were most concerned for the future of Chinese democracy no longer are. For Trump’s critics, there were bigger threats closer to home to worry about.
One anecdote illustrating the lack of any pressure on the incoming Biden administration to depart from Trump’s laissez-faire approach to China’s human-rights violations was provided by the New York Times. On October 1, the paper’s left-leaning op-ed page published a garish piece of propaganda from a Chinese official, who affirmed in the most mulish terms Beijing’s absolute right to violate the conditions of Hong Kong’s transfer to Chinese sovereignty.
This wasn’t just a crass assault on the aspirations of the oppressed Chinese people; it was terrible writing. It made no effort to persuade—indeed, the author’s objective seemed to be to provoke. That’s precisely the kind of thing the Times’ most sensitive staffers would have once made a federal case over. As it happens, they were all tuckered out.
A New York Magazine examination of how the Trump era has changed the Times coverage found that the newspaper’s internal feedback channels were barely moved by the insult to their intelligence and political sensibilities. “The China op-ed didn’t hit home because everyone is exhausted,” one Times reporter told reporter Reeves Wiedeman. “You can’t be mad all the time.” That exhaustion was a byproduct of how Times reporters and staffers theatrically lashed out at their bosses over the publication of a sitting U.S. senator’s op-ed arguing for the deployment of the National Guard in cities overrun by violence this past summer. The enthusiasm displayed for what Times staffers called a threat to their very physical safety was so intense that there was just nothing left for the poor people of Hong Kong.
The left’s fascination with domestic authoritarianism (and their own virtuous cognizance of it) began early in the Trump administration—within its first two weeks, in fact. Some of their concerns were valid, and some were transparent contrivances. And Donald Trump’s disposition is surely conducive to a form of authoritarianism, even if the office he occupied was not. But those who saw tyranny around every darkened corner didn’t just underestimate the checks on ambitious men and women codified in America’s founding documents. They misread Donald Trump, who they assumed to be a competent and engaged executive when he was none of those things. Surely, an honest observer would admit that any party that allows its opposition to consistently dominate the press, the culture, and two consecutive elections is uniquely bad at despotism.
But the lack of much grassroots pressure on Joe Biden to correct for Trump’s oversight suggests China’s free hand has not been entirely withdrawn. Biden has called China’s President Xi Jinping a “thug” and pledged that he would recommit the U.S. to the promotion of liberal values. But Biden’s advisers are equally concerned that any effort to punish China for its assaults on human dignity would imperil the effort to integrate the PRC into moderating international institutions.
For example, Trump’s “advisers are considering other measures to punish China in the coming weeks, including sanctions related to China’s security crackdowns in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang region, where the Chinese government has carried out mass detentions and harsh policing of ethnic minorities.” These are all overdue maneuvers from the Trump White House, and they could represent a foundation on which Biden could build a coercive response to Chinese aggression. But Biden’s allies, many of whom would suffer if commercial ties to the Mainland were jeopardized, seem to be quietly lobbying the president-elect to roll these orders back—an option his campaign has left open.
Whether he does so, they say, is contingent on China taking more aggressive actions against its minorities or political dissidents, or its moving military assets into disputed areas of the South China Sea. China has already engaged in behaviors that should generate a punitive response from the West. Rollback in the absence of concessions from Beijing should be off the table.
There is a disparity of interests at work here. Biden’s more establishmentarian and corporatist allies are invested in dragging China—kicking and screaming if need be—into the community of nations. By contrast, the so-called “liberal” wing of the Democratic Party is consumed with apathy over China’s inauspicious political evolution. If entropy prevails, China’s slide into totalitarianism will continue apace, even as the international community rewards it. That is both foolish and unnecessary, but it seems no one has the energy to avert it.
Beyond America’s borders, authoritarianism is on the march. It’s the sort that doesn’t disguise itself such that only advanced degree holders can identify it, and the free world must confront it. That is, so long as the leader of the free world can convince his allies to muster the enthusiasm for the fight. Unfortunately, everyone’s pretty beat.