During the advent of the Cold War, Berlin, quite literally divided between East and West, symbolized the struggle between competing political and economic systems. Hong Kong may well be the new front lines of a struggle that spans the 21st Century.
This past Monday, the Deputy National Security Advisor gave a remarkable speech to the Chinese people in which he touched on democracy, rule of law, and consent of the governed. One hopes this is the first of what will become a sustained effort to confront and confound the Chinese Communist Party’s plan to re-make the world in its image.
The speech – delivered in Mandarin – by Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger was given on the 101st anniversary of China’s May Fourth Movement, which was started by university students to protest China’s unfair treatment at the Paris Peace Conference following World War One. The May Fourth Movement grew into what historian John Promfret characterizes as, “a wholesale transformation of Chinese politics, society, and culture.” Some have called the movement the, “Chinese Enlightenment,” the mottos of which were “Mr. Science,” and, “Mr. Democracy.” The subjugation of China by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1949 put an end to this promising development.
Compare the fate of Mainland China under CCP rule with the experience of Hong Kong, which over 150 years of British rule became more democratic and an international economic powerhouse. For decades, Hong Kong was one of the most capitalist, business-friendly, and internationally integrated cities in the world. It, along with Taiwan, belies the notion that democracy is anathema to Chinese culture.
In 1997, the United Kingdom returned Hong Kong to Chinese control. The Joint Declaration, signed by the two countries, established the Basic Law of Hong Kong, which guaranteed its autonomy for fifty years, until 2047. The late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping characterized it as, “one country; two systems.” That began to change about the time that Xi Jinping was effectively installed as emperor at the 2017 Chinese Communist Party Congress.
With the rise of Xi, the Chinese Communist Party has steadily eroded Hong Kong’s independence. Mainland China is exporting to Hong Kong political repression and thuggery. If this continues, Hong Kong as a cosmopolitan, international center of business and finance will soon disappear.
In 2015, pro-Beijing candidates won a majority of districts to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo). With these officials in place, the CCP was able to use its influence to soften the Basic Law and exert more influence. In response to this slide toward communism, pro-democracy candidates in 2019 won 17 of 18 of Hong Kong’s districts; more than 71% of voters participated, compared to 42% in 2015. In response, the CCP has tightened the screws on Hong Kong. The result has been pro-democracy demonstrations in which millions of Hong Kongers participated. These were a daily occurrence until the pandemic.
The CCP cannot tolerate vibrant pro-democracy sentiment. Since the distraction of the pandemic lockdowns, the CCP has increasingly been using its influence and stooges in Hong Kong to arrest pro-democracy activists, effectively making criminals of those who are exercising their natural rights. The world ignores China’s systematic pattern of abuse at its peril.
One may ask, “Why is this happening?” It all comes down to the CCP’s fear that the example of a democratic and autonomous Hong Kong (and Taiwan) is a threat to their grip on power. The CCP is committed to a communist ideology that views its system as superior and seeks to advance it in every way possible. They view the last 150 years as a low point of Chinese history. They assert that their culture is superior and they’re meant to dictate to the rest of the world. This is a very dangerous combination for a country that is growing in military, economic, and technological strength.
Xi and the CCP would rather have a diminished Hong Kong than have it challenge their authority. Their effort to subvert the 1997 Joint Declaration and erode the Basic Law is accelerating. They want a passive territory under its control, not a hotbed of pro-democracy sentiment.
For the foreseeable future, China is our most pressing geopolitical challenge. Its growing capabilities present us with unique and complex problems. The most potent threats to the ideas we hold dear – democracy, human rights, private property, the rule of law – come from China. As with Berlin in the Cold War, the United States must rally our friends and allies to preserve natural rights and a cooperative system of international norms.
Michael Krull is President & CEO of CRA, Inc., and an adjunct professor teaching politics and public policy at Georgetown University. He also participates as a lecturer for the Georgetown Global Education Institute, which brings senior government leaders from the Pacific Rim to the United States for short-term study tours.
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