Foreign Affairs

Why Has the White House Been Silent on the Hong Kong Protests?

Protesters demanding basic civil rights could use a friend in Washington.
June 11, 2019
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Protesters hold placards and shout slogans during a rally against the extradition law proposal on June 9, 2019 in Hong Kong China. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

You probably can’t read about this in China: Since Sunday, Hong Kong has been rocked by protests over a bill that would allow extradition to mainland China.

When Hong Kong returned to Chinese control in 1997, the People’s Republic let Hong Kong retain some of its cultural and political inheritances from its time in the British Empire, including free markets, elections (if not full democracy), and the rule of law.

That “one country, two systems” doctrine is under threat by a bill that would allow Chinese authorities to arrest suspects in Hong Kong, where the Basic Law guarantees trial by jury, and relocate them to trial in the mainland, where the government still operates a system of gulag-like political prisons called the Laogai and the accused have effectively no rights.

Booksellers caught smuggling volumes banned by the Chinese Communist Party into the mainland have been “kidnapped” (their words) by Chinese authorities. Were the bill to pass, the entire island could be subject to the same treatment.

And it could be even worse for the territory’s Filipino and Indonesian minorities – about 600,000 people – who were not given Chinese citizenship during the 1997 transfer of power. Then again, Chinese citizenship has done little to help the Uighurs of Xinjiang.

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American policy toward China in the Trump administration can be summed up in the phrase “great power competition.” The phrase first appeared in the administration’s National Security Strategy, prepared largely under the supervision of then-National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and released in December, 2017. Under the heading, “Preserve Peace Through Strength,” the document lays out a compelling view of the great foreign policy challenges facing the United States:

[A]fter being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition returned. China and Russia began to reassert their influence regionally and globally. Today, they are fielding military capabilities designed to deny America access in times of crisis and to contest our ability to operate freely in critical commercial zones during peacetime. In short, they are contesting our geopolitical advantages and trying to change the international order in their favor.

This culminating statement of the strategy is remarkably clear in its assessment of America’s interests and threats. Elsewhere, the document is equally clear about the aims of the revanchist powers:

China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests. China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.

Taken together, these two assessments paint a discomfiting picture: China is developing military capabilities designed to prevent the application of American power – power which was built after World War II largely on the basis of implied capabilities, rather than by constant conquest. The Chinese strategy is to use implicit capabilities of their own to evict and replace American influence in the Indo-Pacific, building a new international order that benefits Beijing and regimes like it: oppressive, aggressive, authoritarian, and corrupt.

China has plans for influence far beyond its own neighborhood. In 2017, the People’s Liberation Army Navy began operations at a base in Djibouti. As the United States contemplated withdrawing from Syria, Beijing made plans to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s government and expand its influence in the Middle East.

Closer to home, China has been tightening the screws on two of its persistent annoyances: Taiwan and Hong Kong. Taiwan, a country of 24 million with abundant military support from the United States, has made itself too costly to conquer for over 70 years, since the end of the Chinese Civil War.

Hong Kong, on the other hand, is legally part of China, has no military relations with the United States, and has a smaller population than each of China’s eight largest cities. It’s much more susceptible to subjugation, and therefore more deserving of American encouragement.

Yet, there has been no encouragement for the protesters from Washington. Trump hasn’t tweeted about Hong Kong. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with democracy advocates in May, but has yet to make a statement advocating for their cause. (State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus made a statement in support of the protesters at a briefing Monday, shortly after Pompeo concluded a statement about the recent immigration agreement with Mexico.)

Pompeo did issue a statement on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre last week. Is it so much harder to express support for demonstrators who are still alive?

In an era of strategic competition among great powers, promoting freedom, justice, and the rule of law in the backyard of an aggressive, authoritarian adversary is an easy way to leverage power. It costs nothing. It risks almost nothing. It serves as a reminder to the world that America still stands for the principles outlined in our founding documents, that those principles are a viable and preferable alternative to the party-state apparatus of the Chinese Communist Party, and that they are available to all people regardless of race, religion, or geography, so long as they’re willing to fight to secure them.

If that’s not “peace through strength,” then what is?

Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.