President Trump has not been against the Hong Kong protestors and we should be thankful for that small mercy. But he and his administration have not been clearly for them either. Bipartisan support for the free people of Hong Kong is not clearly echoed by the administration.
This is a mistake. Because it means that America appears uncertain and flailing as a free people, of a free city, are under threat.
The events now unfolding in Hong Kong cast in stark relief the difference between the heroic age of conservative leadership in the 1980s and ‘90s and our current views of the free world and America’s obligation to those who remain in it.
The current crisis has its roots in the end of that age.
The negotiations of the terms under which Hong Kong would be handed over from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China began under Margaret Thatcher.
The joint declaration between the British and the Chinese which agreed to the “handover” of Hong Kong after over a century of British rule was created in the hope that China—which at that moment was liberalizing—would continue to do so. The declaration called for Hong Kong to have a distinct system from Chinese communism— “one nation, two systems” as the euphemism went—and for Hong Kong to remain free for 50 years after the handover. The gamble was that, by that time, communism would be on the way out in China.
At the time, this hope did not seem fanciful. It was 1997: The Soviet Union had collapsed 6 years before, the Tiananman Square massacre was a decade old, and the whole world looked like it was moving in America’s direction. Thatcher even travelled to Hong Kong to dedicate the then new airport as a symbol of Hong Kong’s future.
Which, in a way, it was: That’s the airport the protestors took over this week.
This crisis was ignited by Communist Chinese satraps in Hong Kong introducing a law that would allow extradition of Hong Kong citizens accused of crimes to China. The objections are obvious: The law is tantamount to the revocation of all the due process and fairness for Honk Kong citizens.
The protestors—who amount to more than a fifth of Hong Kong’s total population—do not want to be subject to the Chinese legal system through extradition. They do not want to be labelled “rioters” (an offense which carries grave legal consequences). And, if possible, they would like some say in who governs them. These are not outrageous desires.
The extradition law was “suspended,” but not withdrawn and the crisis has festered for two months without help from the U.S. administration—and with too many statements about what a fine man the dictator of China is.
In the 1980s and ‘90s American leadership was transparent and coordinated when it came to international crises. When Saddam Hussein violated international law and invaded Iraq, the first President Bush gave a clear speech on international obligations and the consequences for violating it. Ronald Reagan was similarly clear on the conflicts of the Cold War, even overriding the State Department on Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands. The Second President Bush clearly stated the international stakes of Afghanistan and Iraq and without war changed the nuclear policies of rogue regimes in Pakistan and Libya.
There is no rhetoric about freedom, international obligations, or the rule of law issuing from the Trump White House or, clearly, from the Department of State.
There should be. Because aside from the cause of freedom, we have a national interest in the subject.
Hong Kong has a special trading status with the United States. As a legacy of its British past and this special status, certain American controls on technology and other exports that apply to the rest of China do not apply to Hong Kong. This is a recognition by the United States of the “one country, two systems”—which was promised by the Chinese in the original deal about Hong Kong’s handover.
Bills are being introduced in the House and Senate to monitor and strengthen this special status and to threaten it should the Chinese government remove the basis for it. If the administration backed these bills—along with the bipartisan support they now have in Congress—America would speak in one voice in the same tones as won the Cold War and allowed coalitions to thwart and topple tyrannies after it ended.
And America would not need to speak alone. Trump has been given a gift in the rise of Boris Johnson as prime minister of Great Britain. That nation is the chief signatory to the deal that was to keep Hong Kong free for 50 years and Johnson has forcefully asserted Britain’s right to act independently on the world stage. The prime minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, is also a China critic and is notably concerned about Australia’s largest trading partner’s threat to security.
In America’s contest with China, President Trump has powerful cards to play. They include American unity on this subject, allies in the Anglosphere (and elsewhere) who are concerned about the events in Hong Kong, and the fact that China’s own global ambitions—particularly its Belt and Road initiative—could be threatened if its actions in Hong Kong spin out of control.
America’s ability to shape foreign affairs is never as complete as presidents wish. But it’s not nothing, either. If Trump consulted and coordinated first with key allies—and subsequently coordinated an American plan with Congress and the State Department—he could then make a speech announcing American policy and making clear what the consequences would be for China should the regime renege on its obligations in Hong Kong.
In a perfect world, he might say something like this:
We have watched with alarm the efforts of the Chinese government to renege a deal to keep Hong Kong free. China solemnly pledged that Hong Kong would remain free for 50 years. This was near the same time China was being welcomed into the world trading system. As part of that welcome, we are at present attempting to negotiate a fair-trade deal with the Chinese government.
Other nations around the world are considering whether or not to join China’s Belt and Road initiative and to accept Communist China as a normal country entitled to have its word accepted on international agreements.
Instead China, which has been sanctioned by the World Court for encroaching on Philippine lands and is now prosecuting harsh measures against Muslims within its borders, is reneging on a key agreement made in an effort to secure peace and prosperity. The people of Hong Kong are Chinese citizens, but they are also free men and women. And all free people have an interest in their fate.
But America also has its own practical interests. And neither we, nor any of the main trading nations can trust China if it so easily reneges on the promises it made to the British and to Hong Kong regarding the freedom of that city for 50 years.
These are not the acts of a strong, confident nation, as I know President Xi wants the world to believe he leads. When the 50 years are up, if Xi’s communist system is still in place, then Hong Kong can be brought into it.
But China’s actions suggest that it has no confidence in its own system and no intention of following international agreements.
Without the rule of law, prosperity disappears. The people of Hong Kong want to be tried in their own courts, under their own laws—not a faraway communist one. They want to pick their own leaders and not have them dictated by the Communist party. They should have those things, as they always have. All they are asking for is the—prosperous, previously agreed upon—status quo.
What the protestors in Hong Kong are asking for is not, in any way, a violation of Chinese sovereignty. It is merely for China to hold to its end of the agreement.
We make this statement with our allies today and are joined by others in the world community so that there is no ambiguity: If the crisis in Hong Kong is not settled peacefully in accord with the agreements China solemnly made, it will signal to us all that no agreement with China that is worth making.
That would injure the Chinese people and the international system. My administration is endorsing the bipartisan efforts in the House and Senate to monitor the progress in Hong Kong—which enjoys a special trading deal with the United States. Other nations are doing likewise. China is sovereign over Hong Kong. But it gained that sovereignty through an agreement that it must live up to if it is to continue its strong and growing place in the world economy.
The American people wish the people of Hong Kong—and all of China—well. But prosperity and trade can’t be obtained with governments who don’t keep their most important agreements.
Hong Kong is a city with strong ties to the West. It should be a harbinger of a better China to come. Whatever the United States, Britain and our allies do that future could be snuffed out by violence and tyranny.
But if we do nothing—not even offer an encouraging word to our fellow freemen—the sad outcome will be joined by the saddest words—“what might have been.”