- President Donald Trump has essentially been silent about this month’s protests in Hong Kong, and in doing so he has wasted an opportunity to stand up for democracy.
- Hong Kongers have been fighting to stay an open society for as long as possible, a cause the US should stand for around the world.
- But the White House is failing to project that because the president is more concerned with a trade deal than with standing up for democracy.
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The Hong Kong protests have held the attention of the planet for weeks now, with nary a word from the leader of the free world. This is a shame and a wasted opportunity from the White House.
The millions of people in Hong Kong marching are trying to protect democracy. They are trying to avoid being prematurely swallowed by a totalitarian system, one that was threatening to be able to seize people and assets on the island with relative impunity. They were rejecting the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, which instead of becoming more open and democratic as China became more wealthy is gripping Chinese institutions and individuals ever tighter.
This, if you listen to what’s come out of Washington for the past few years, is part of why relations between the two biggest economies in the world have become confrontational. It seems that the US and Chinese political systems, instead of coming closer together, are moving further apart.
But when Time magazine asked President Donald Trump about the protesters early last week he didn’t have much to say about their values or what they were fighting. He just said that they seemed "effective" and that the US had its own "argument" with China. Then, a day later, Trump had a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping and didn’t mention Hong Kong at all, according to the official readout.
To Trump, the Hong Kong protesters have nothing to do with the US. He doesn’t see the connection between US democracy and Hong Kong’s fight to stay democratic. This is more than an oversight; it is a moral failure. We live in a world where these two systems — the US’s open society and China’s closed society — are fighting for hearts and minds. With these protests Hong Kong’s citizens made it clear which system they preferred. And the US just wasted an opportunity to stand for that.
Hong Kong rejected the Chinese dream
There is no question that China under Xi is turning away from the West’s hopes for it. Rather than open up and become more democratic, China is closing itself off from Western thought and building a totalitarian surveillance state.
The Chinese Communist Party has promised the Chinese people that if they accept one-party rule, in exchange they’ll get wealth and a restoration of the country’s dignity stolen over the past century of violence and subjugation. That’s the "Chinese dream" and the "harmonious society" as we know it today.
China is likely to push for Hong Kong to join this society fully in about 30 years. The island was returned to China after British rule in 1997, after which it was promised 50 years of autonomy under the "one country, two systems" rule. With its support of the extradition bill, China was reneging on that promise — taking a dramatic step in its creeping encroachment on Hong Kong’s independence. No one expected Hong Kong to hold Beijing to the promise with such force.
The protests have been censored in China, and state media is decrying a Western "hand" in what it describes as the Hong Kong "riots." But outside China the fact that Hong Kong has pushed back so hard against Xi’s encroachment is a stark warning.
It is a warning that Xi’s China is not a patient China willing to bide its time as it has in the past. It sends a warning to countries considering participation in China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. It sends a warning to the people of Taiwan, who are about to vote in an election next year. The Hong Kong protests are being seen as a boost for the incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen, who heads up a party with a more hardline stance against Beijing.
China’s encroachment is unlikely to stop. Bringing Hong Kong to heel is a part of China’s greater narrative about itself — it’s part of the story of an aggrieved former empire returning to glory and reclaiming what belongs to it. So the fact that Hong Kongers were willing to risk their lives to stand up for democracy in the face of such a strong, determined (and seemingly inevitable) force is even more admirable. This is what the US should stand for, and it should be a reminder to the world of what we are.
But this White House blew it.
Leaders of the free world
Trump wasted this opportunity to stand for American values because he does not understand the importance of protecting democracy and because to him all relationships are transactional.
There is no more relevant example than the White House’s recent move to sell $2 billion worth of defensive arms to Taiwan, another burgeoning democracy constantly under threat of Chinese encroachment. According to The Wall Street Journal, Trump was angry with his staff for committing to closer ties with the nation, which China insists is part of its territory.
When a member of the US State Department named Alex Wong traveled to Taiwan, Trump reportedly flipped out on his aides asking, "Who the f— is this guy?" He was worried that the arms sale would worsen his prospects of a trade deal with China, though for decades the US has been the primary country supplying weapons to Taiwan.
The so-called leader of the free world does not care about keeping the world free.
The best response the US could muster to Hong Kong’s protest was a threat from Congress to pass a bipartisan bill that would threaten the economic relationship between the US and Hong Kong.
"The extradition bill imperils the strong US-Hong Kong relationship that has flourished for two decades," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. "If it passes, the Congress has no choice but to reassess whether Hong Kong is ‘sufficiently autonomous’ under the ‘one country, two systems’ framework. We look forward to the introduction of a new bipartisan Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in the coming days by Senator Rubio, Chairman Jim McGovern, and Congressman Chris Smith."
Hopefully the threat of this bill is enough of a deterrent. It would be a shame to punish the people of Hong Kong for China’s bellicosity. They are basically the leaders of the free world now.
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