By Alan W. Dowd
OCTOBER 2019—Hong Kong has been paralyzed by protests throughout 2019. The protests began when a bill was introduced in Hong Kong’s pro-PRC legislative body that would allow extradition to Mainland China of Hong Kong residents accused of crimes. Even after Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam withdrew the bill, protesters remained in the streets calling for political reforms. As of this writing, literally millions of people in Hong Kong have joined the anti-Beijing, pro-democracy protests. As they wave America’s flag and sing America’s national anthem, they are reminding us that the world still needs America to stand for freedom.
Here in the American Heartland, the protest movement’s demands seem both reasonable and unthreatening. As the Straits Times reports, the movement is calling for “amnesty for all arrested protesters, an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, universal suffrage for the Chief Executive and Legislative Council elections, [and] resignation of Mrs. Lam, whom some accuse of being a puppet of Beijing.”
But from Beijing’s perspective, these demands represent a mortal threat to the regime, for they strike at the heart of Beijing’s control over Hong Kong.
Amnesty for the protesters would mean the people can disagree with the PRC government and ignore the demands of the regime—and get away with it. This calls to mind how Reagan described the differences between the Soviet and American systems: “Two Soviets were talking to each other. And one of them asked, ‘What’s the difference between the Soviet Constitution and the United States Constitution?’ And the other one said, ‘That’s easy. The Soviet Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of gathering. The American Constitution guarantees freedom after speech and freedom after gathering.’”
An independent investigation of police brutality—perhaps carried out by a UN agency or some other international monitoring group—would undermine the PRC’s authority and control over Hong Kong, which would undermine its legitimacy on the Mainland.
A popular vote for the Chief Executive and Legislative Council would eliminate Beijing’s ability to indirectly control Hong Kong.
Lam’s forced resignation would mean the people of Hong Kong are in charge—not the business-suit autocrats in Beijing. Indeed, it’s worth noting that most of the protesters are demonstrating under banners that read: “Hong Kong Is Not China.” Xi Jinping and his henchmen hold the very opposite view. The core of Xi’s political program is reunification of Chinese peoples and territories by “all necessary means.” For Hong Kong to seek independence and Taiwan to defiantly maintain independence from the Mainland is “a humiliating rejection of Beijing’s Asian centrality by an undeniably Chinese people,” as Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution observes.
That explains why the PRC’s office in Hong Kong has labeled the protesters’ actions as “serious violent crimes.” The PRC recently began underlining its words with actions. As France24 reports, satellite images show PRC troops and armored personnel carriers massing in Shenzhen, just across the bay from Hong Kong. The PRC maintains a garrison 10,000 troops in Hong Kong. As of this writing, they have remained in their barracks, but the situation is fluid.
Just as Beijing is sending signals with its troop deployments, Washington should send signals with words and actions.
“Freedom is the essence of our nation,” Reagan once said. “We remain the beacon of hope for oppressed peoples everywhere.”
What was true in the early 1980s remains true in 2019, and President Donald Trump needs to use the tools of the presidency to shine that beacon-light of freedom on the crisis in Hong Kong. To his credit, Trump took this very tack vis-à-vis North Korea during his 2018 State of the Union address. It’s time to use the bully pulpit in the same way with Beijing.
So far, Trump has been, at best, muted with regard to the situation in Hong Kong. Trump initially urged the PRC to “deal humanely with Hong Kong,” noted that “Hong Kong is a part of China,” and even said, “They don’t need advice.”
He was a bit firmer during his address at the UN, declaring that “The world fully expects that the Chinese government will honor its binding treaty, made with the British and registered with the United Nations, in which China commits to protect Hong Kong’s freedom, legal system and democratic ways of life.” According to Trump, “How China chooses to handle the situation will say a great deal about its role in the world in the future. We are all counting on President Xi as a great leader.”
That’s far short of the full-throated encouragement Reagan offered those who yearned for freedom—from Central America to Central Europe—during the Cold War.
No one is suggesting that Trump send in the 82nd Airborne. But there are things the president can say and do to burnish America’s interests as well as its ideals—and to make Beijing think twice before repeating the crimes of Tiananmen.
For starters, the president should speak the truth.
“Let us begin with candor, with words that rest on plain and simple facts,” Reagan said in the coldest days of the Cold War. “The differences between America and the Soviet Union are deep and abiding. The United States is a democratic nation. Here the people rule. We build no walls to keep them in, nor organize any system of police to keep them mute…It’s difficult for us to understand the restrictions of dictatorships which seek to control each institution and every facet of people’s lives—the expression of their beliefs, their movements and their contacts with the outside world.” These differences “put us into natural conflict and competition with one another,” he added matter-of-factly. But he also noted, “This doesn’t mean that we can’t deal with each other…The fact that neither of us likes the other’s system is no reason to refuse to talk.”
Thus, Reagan negotiated arms agreements with Moscow, even as he relentlessly and repeatedly defended human rights. He emphasized the Soviet regime’s persecution of Christians and its refusal to allow hundreds of thousands of Jews to emigrate. Gorbachev would try to limit discussions to arms control, but Reagan, in his own words, always “led off” summit meetings by raising human rights.
These same principles—these same approaches—apply to the U.S.-PRC relationship.
Thus, Trump should negotiate trade deals and seek common ground with Beijing where possible, while offering moral support to the forces of freedom in Hong Kong and on the Mainland. “A little less détente,” as Reagan argued, “and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of armored divisions.”
Toward that end, Trump should draw attention to China’s laogai prisons, underground churches and Charter08 signatories; talk about Beijing’s brutal treatment of Uighur Muslims and Christians; rally like-minded allies to create an International Endowment for Democracy to expose China’s efforts to undermine Western political systems; and provide a platform where Chinese human-rights activists and political dissidents can speak.
Washington can do more than shine the light on Beijing’s behavior and speak up for freedom in Hong Kong.
For example, China has stood up hundreds of so-called Confucius Institutes around the world and in the U.S. These organizations spread Chinese propaganda and circumvent the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Congress and the president should work together to craft legislation requiring that China allow an equal number of U.S. cultural centers to be opened at Chinese universities, and stipulating that Beijing’s refusal to agree to such a reciprocal arrangement would result in shutting down all of China’s Confucius Institutes in the U.S.
Specific to Hong Kong, Michael Sobolik of the American Foreign Policy Council notes, “Since the 1997 handover by the United Kingdom, as part of the autonomy arrangement hammered out with Beijing, Hong Kong has enjoyed special economic treatment that has made the island-city a haven for capital from the Mainland…If the United States and other countries were to truly roll back special status for Hong Kong, it would imperil the assets of Chinese elites.”
The president and congressional leaders could let it be known that they are preparing legislation that would end that special status, in the event of a PRC crackdown in Hong Kong.
Already, there’s bipartisan legislation working its way through Congress that would direct the Department of State to report to Congress “whether Hong Kong is sufficiently autonomous from China to justify its unique treatment” under U.S. law. If Hong Kong “amends its laws to allow the rendition of individuals to countries that lack defendants’ rights,” the legislation would allow for expedited visas for Hong Kong residents seeking to work or study in the U.S., “even if the applicant had been arrested for participating in certain nonviolent protests supporting human rights or the rule of law.” It also directs the Executive branch to submit to Congress “a list of individuals responsible for abducting and torturing people for exercising internationally recognized human rights in Hong Kong.” The legislation would then impose economic sanctions on those individuals and bar them from entering the United States.
The Hong Kong protesters recently visited the U.S. Consulate to present a petition. As they arrived, they chanted, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”
They are, quite literally, speaking the language of freedom. Reagan spoke it fluently. In his second inaugural address, he called it “the American sound…hopeful, big-hearted, idealistic, daring, decent and fair. That’s our heritage; that is our song.”
Hong Kong is singing it. We should join them.