With the West having succumbed to a state of insularity and confusion, China is using the cover of this pandemic to settle old scores.
Beijing has dispatched naval assets into disputed parts of the South China Sea, where they have engaged in provocative behavior and even caused confrontations resulting in the sinking of commercial vessels flagged by neighboring states. China has accelerated its effort to ethnically cleanse Muslim-dominated portions of the country by dispatching the Uighur population previously imprisoned in reeducation camps across the country, where they serve as forced factory labor. And now, the Chinese Communist Party is moving on the restive city of Hong Kong.
Following a sustained period of civil unrest during which the people of Hong Kong came out in overwhelming numbers protesting Beijing’s effort to suffocate the liberties bequeathed to them by the British, China is making its move. In an audacious move, China’s undemocratic National People’s Congress plans to bypass Hong Kong’s legislature to impose a new law that would criminalize political activities Beijing deems seditious. The controversial measure would allow China’s secretive security apparatus to operate freely inside the city, threatening its citizens with arrest, detention, and extralegal persecution subject to the whims of Communist Party apparatchiks. The law, which goes well beyond the proposal that led millions of Hong Kong citizens to take to the streets last year, would effectively relieve the city’s residents of the autonomy they have enjoyed since the British ceded this territory to Chinese control in 1997.
With the world looking on in 2019, Beijing’s heavy hand was stayed not just by the number of demonstrators in the streets but by the symbols they took with them. Hong Kong’s residents proudly flew the American flag, sang our country’s national anthem, and waved hand-written signs demanding the God-granted liberties enshrined in our Constitution. They did so not because they wanted to be Americans but because the United States is the sovereign manifestation of the universal human ambition to live free.
China’s actions are an affront to democratic ideals and the rule of law. It is an attack on the aspirations of freedom-loving people around the world who look toward the United States for guidance and support.
American political leaders should not turn a blind eye toward the plight of those in Hong Kong, not merely in deference to the moral obligations before them but because of the instrumental utility this moment presents.
China has used the pandemic to behave more aggressively on almost every front, and it is incumbent on the West to meet that geostrategic challenge. That effort will include many dimensions, some of which are more visible than others. As Jonathan Schanzer outlined in COMMENTARY, the effort to prevent China from securing prohibitive influence over international institutions has long taken place in the diplomatic shadows but is now spilling out into the open. The president’s now overt effort to counter Chinese influence over the WHO is part of that same mission, but it accomplishes another core American objective: shining a spotlight on China’s responsibility for the failure to contain a pandemic that paralyzed the global economy.
Likewise, the ideological struggle that seems destined to culminate in the asphyxiation of liberty in Hong Kong presents the president with a variety of opportunities to counter China’s global commercial influence.
Beating on China amid mutually destructive trade hostilities hasn’t changed the character of this regime in the last three years, and it’s unlikely to do so in the future. The mission to counter China’s influence is an ideological struggle, not a commercial one. What might lead the Chinese Communist Party away from its repressive, paranoid, and reckless nature is the introduction of a threat to that which it holds dearest: its long-term objective to smother the global appeal of Western-style liberalism through inducements and cash incentives.
Toward this end, Hong Kong’s resistance represents an unacceptable threat. The city’s recalcitrant devotion to its political freedoms is intangible. It is unmoved by the intoxicating promise of technological comforts and glittering infrastructure projects. It rejects entirely the en vogue notion that the classically liberal ideal is a spent force, decadent and irredeemably hidebound. Commercial incentives and public sector “nudging” has not overcome the allure of access to Chinese consumers in the West.
Transforming that conflict into an ideological struggle between the forces of liberty and those of authoritarian bondage may, however, compel Western consumers to rethink their spending habits. Americans are increasingly of the mind that the companies they patronize should wear their politics on their sleeves. Consumers might become more selective when those sleeves are adorned with a hammer and sickle and are stained with the blood of Chinese democrats. The only thing scarier than losing market share in China is losing it in the United States.
Donald Trump has never displayed much affection for abstract liberal principles, and he has a bad habit of sidling up to authoritarian strongmen. But the president has also shown a willingness to confront China, and, toward that objective, Hong Kong’s plight represents just another tool in the toolshed. If the president can convince himself to use this opportunity to his advantage, he would also advance the cause of human freedom—to say nothing of the mutually beneficial peace and prosperity that tends to accompany the flowering of that condition. If he declines to do so, the next president must take up that mantle.
On the other end of this pandemic, the Sino-American relationship will be a much more conflictual one. And that conflict will include an ideological dimension. That’s a fight China has been waging for years. America should, at long last, join it.