The Ebola pandemic from Africa has contaminated the news cycle with bad news, but another crisis in a different spot on the compass has even longer-term consequences for U.S. security. The showdown between democracy protestors and the government in Hong Kong will presage whether America faces a future Cold War with China.
Hong Kong has merely 7 million of China’s 1.4 billion souls, but it has long been the beacon of hope for the Chinese multitudes yearning for freedom. It has only been a part of the People’s Republic since 1997, when Great Britain surrendered the colony as the sun set on its empire. However, 150 years of British rule left a strong legacy in the form of an independent judiciary and belief in Western individual rights such as speech, assembly, and popular sovereignty.
In the handover agreement between Beijing and London, these liberties were guaranteed to remain in place. Mao Zedong, the founder of the Chinese Communist Party which has governed the country since 1949, instructed his cadres, “We should support whatever the enemy opposes and oppose whatever the enemy supports.” It is thus hardly a surprise that the communists broke their word the second the royal governor departed Victoria Harbor. For the ensuing 17 years, Beijing has consistently curtailed the political rights of Hong Kongers.
Most recently, in August, an edict was handed down by the Chinese National People’s Congress declaring that Hong Kong citizens will not be allowed to vote for the head of their local government when the chief executive’s term ends in 2017. “The Hong Kong … government cannot make something that is not in the basic law possible,” current Chief Executive CY Leung said on Thursday about protestors demanding that Hong Kongers be able to elect who leads them. “Politics is the art of the possible, and we have to draw a line between possibilities and impossibilities.” That is a definitive statement with no wiggle room that reflects the official position of Hong Kong’s overlords in Beijing.
The increasingly heated standoff in the central business district of this Asian financial hub cannot last indefinitely. Eventually, something will have to give because there is no middle ground between the opposing sides: The people want the vote, and Beijing says they can’t have it. Practically speaking, Beijing cannot make an exception for Hong Kong without stirring up democratic sentiment across the rest of the world’s largest country. Reports from the ground that the People’s Liberation Army has reinforced its Hong Kong garrison indicate the government has no plan to yield.
The Hong Kong tinderbox is relevant to America because it reveals in which direction greater China is headed. Since President Nixon visited Mao in 1972 and opened relations with the Middle Kingdom, U.S.-Sino policy has been based on the idea that engagement and trade would influence China into becoming freer – and inevitably into a democracy. Four decades later, a crackdown on freedom in Hong Kong shows that gamble is being lost. As Beijing hardliners tighten their grip and continue a rapid military buildup, tensions with the United States will escalate in step.
Brett M. Decker, consulting director at the White House Writers Group and author of “Bowing to Beijing,” was a Hong Kong-based editor for the Asian Wall Street Journal from 2000-2003.