KOLB: Hong Kong’s Future Is High Stakes For The West

(Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

Charles Kolb Deputy Assistant to George H.W. Bush
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If anyone in the world is well positioned to address the current strained relationship between Hong Kong and China, it’s Chris Patten, Oxford University’s Chancellor and the last Governor General of Hong Kong.  It was Patten who negotiated and signed the July 1997 Joint Declaration that was “lodged” at the United Nations as an international treaty.

That treaty agreement guaranteed Hong Kong 50 years of semi-autonomy from China under a “one country, two systems” arrangement. Instead, what we’ve seen in recent months is a systematic, draconian tightening of the Chinese Communist Party’s control over Hong Kong in ways that significantly restrict freedom of association and expression.

There are at least two reasons why protecting Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms should matter to the West and to all Americans.

First, democratic freedoms, along with concepts such as the rule of law, an independent judiciary, the right to dissent peacefully, and an open media, constitute the essence of liberal Western democracy. These concepts, rules, and values also foster economic and political transparency, and it is transparency that the Chinese Communist Party cannot tolerate.

Second, China’s ripping up of a binding 50-year international commitment with 27 years still left to run signals that the current Chinese government cannot be trusted, is pursuing expansionist policies that threaten global world order and disdains reactions from the global community.

Hong Kong’s problems dramatically worsened last year when its Beijing-oriented puppet leader, Carrie Lam, proposed legislation that allowed extradition to mainland China of Hong Kong criminal suspects. Massive demonstrations followed, and that legislation was withdrawn in a humiliating defeat for the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership.

Now, with the coronavirus distracting much of the world, the Chinese Communist Party, at its recent National People’s Congress gathering, has circumvented Hong Kong’s legislative body to impose directly on Hong Kong massive new security laws that contravene the 1997 Joint Declaration.

China’s economy is the world’s second largest. Since Deng Xiaoping began opening up China politically and economically in 1978, China has enjoyed perhaps the most rapid economic rise of any developed nation in world history. Hong Kong has been the entry point for much of the U.S. and other global capital that has facilitated China’s economic miracle.

This economic growth has lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens out of poverty and positioned China to play an increasingly important role in world trade. In that regard, previous U.S. Democratic and Republican administrations championed China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001. The expectation was that China would evolve into a more open society if given access to global markets and global institutions. Things haven’t worked out that way. They won’t.

China cannot have matters both ways: it must decide whether it wants to remain an open or a closed society. China cannot expect to play a role on the global stage while simultaneously pursuing policies that undermine widely established trading practices, intellectual property standards, the rule of law, international human rights norms and internet freedoms.

China envisions its currency becoming a globally accepted reserve currency. That will never happen as long as its economic and financial numbers remain unreliable, its corporate-accounting practices opaque, and its currency subject to government manipulation.

The Trump administration should not isolate China but instead make clear the consequences of Xi Jinping’s policies. We should welcome China as an economic competitor but explain that the Chinese Communist Party’s militant, expansive nationalism and totalitarian policies will undermine the country’s ability to prosper globally.

We are witnessing in China today creeping totalitarian behavior that is eerily similar to the rise of Nazi Germany: attacks on journalists and writers, persecution of minorities, prosecution of human rights activists and dissenters. Do China’s Hong Kong decisions today suggest another “Munich moment” where the West ignored the looming threat of Hitler?

Barack Obama announced a red line in the sand when it came to Syrian President Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. Assad brazenly crossed that line, and Obama looked the other way. Some 18 months later, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, brazenly sent troops into Ukraine to annex Crimea.

In a recent Project Syndicate article, Chris Patten observed that “[t]he world would be safer for liberal democracies if we created a values-based framework for our dealings with China. We should do this together and not allow ourselves to be picked off one by one by mercantilist intimidation.”

The world, and especially Taiwan, is watching America and the West closely.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House