If we value anything beyond wealth, continuing to tolerate China’s behavior without consequences undermines who we claim to be, Greg Camp writes.
First published in August 2019.
In a move that is all too reminiscent of the protests in Tiananmen Square and their conclusion thirty years ago, Beijing is reported to be moving troops to the border of Hong Kong to put pressure on the people of that special administrative region who object to interference from the central government. The current protests are most immediately over a dispute regarding extradition of suspects to mainland China, but tie in to long-running conflicts over Hong Kong’s special status as an island of democracy in an authoritarian nation. Beijing has been ratcheting up control in recent years, stopping candidates whose political views are contrary to the central government from running and restricting freedom of the press, among other forms of interference.
Donald Trump, in a rare moment of listening to what U.S. intelligence agencies are telling him, noted the buildup in a tweet on Tuesday (13 August 2019), suggesting that “everyone should be calm and safe!”
Whether this was meant as a prediction or a recommendation was not specified. Given the trade war that he has been fighting with China, he has already shot the most convenient bolts available to a president who wants to express disapproval of a country’s actions. What remains are few choices that are not an increasing spiral of conflict that, as with Russia over the last sixty years, end in total war, and Trump’s mercurial approach to the use of force gives little cause for hope for a favorable outcome.
Unfortunately, we may have to walk up to the edge of some abyss to get China to do the right thing — or to punish the country for choosing the wrong answer. China has asserted its place on the world stage — deservedly so, given the country’s long history, population, and potential — but this opens up a vulnerability. China currently holds $1.11 trillion in U.S. debt and has increasingly been tied into the global economy as a means of maintaining economic growth, the government’s promise to make enough people rich enough to accept the denial of basic rights to the mainland’s population. Whereas North Korea continues to employ 1984 as a model of how to organize a society, China has metaphorically adopted Brave New World as its constitutional bible, going so far as to test the notion of social capital as a ranking system for the worthiness of each person.
The situation is made more complicated by the fact that Hong Kong’s special status is the result of colonial aggression against China. Acknowledging this, however, should not be a reason to refuse to support the Hong Kongers. Ranjit Singh, an author with whom I have written in the past, once told me that in his native country of India, the English language has provided a multilingual nation a single language for everyone to dislike equally and the British Raj left behind a system of government and education that the newly independent country adopted because it worked. This is not a defense of colonialism, but is instead an appeal to acknowledge that the people of the region in question have expressed a preference for one system that was imposed on them over another that seeks to be the once and future mode of social organization. The argument of the left — or the wing of the left to which I belong — is that basic rights such as expression and participation in the running of one’s society are better than the authoritarian rule of the few. This is true even with reference to all the wrong acts that have been done in the past that led to contemporary desires for freedom.
But short of flexing our military muscles prior to retreating with back strain or to escalating to war, what can we do?
As I suggested above, China’s ambitions have made the country subject to what Thomas Friedman calls the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention, the observation that two nations with McDonald’s restaurants tend not to go to war with each other. Taken not as an absolute, but as a guiding principle, the idea here is that China’s ties to the global economy and desires for further connections are a vulnerability as well as a strength. If China wants to participate in the modern world, others in the club must hold them to a set of standards.
This is risky, and with Trump as the leader of the United States — a leader who offers more encouragement to dictators than to committed democrats — international cooperation is so much more difficult now, but as Beijing’s treatment of Hong Kong warns us, working with authoritarians can only go so far without being absorbed and subjugated. Economic downturn is a constant fear of the Chinese government, since their only argument to the people for keeping them in power is that they provide more and more widely spread prosperity than has come before. The risk the world’s free nations must take is to be willing to unwind China from the global economy if democratic reforms are not adopted. The United States especially has an effective weapon here, since lenders can only survive if those they lend to keep the relationship going.
The people of China are primed to make this work. Prosperity brings a sense of independence, a reduced tolerance for demands of submission. While the short-term suffering around the globe would be sharp, handing over economic privileges to a regime that is willing to quash human-rights movements does not work out well. And if we value anything beyond wealth, continuing to tolerate China’s behavior without consequences undermines who we claim to be. We may not be able to convince China to become a democracy, but we do not have to enrich its leaders if that does not happen.🔷
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