Would the United States have let the Soviet Union invade West Berlin? Never. Yet America is on the verge of allowing Communist China to enslave the free city of Hong Kong. If this happens, it will be one of the greatest abdications of U.S. moral leadership in history.
Right now, Communist China is massing paramilitary forces on its border with Hong Kong. The purpose appears obvious: Intimidate the pro-freedom movement that has brought parts of the city to a standstill in recent weeks. Meanwhile, Beijing’s rulers have labeled Hong Kong’s protesters "terrorists,” while stating that “those who play with fire will perish by it.” The echoes of the Tiananmen Square massacre 30 years ago are unmistakable.
These developments are eerily familiar to the Soviet Union’s attempts to dominate West Berlin. Yet the United States always made it clear that we would defend the city. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan even traveled there personally, proving by their presence that America stood with its residents.
Compare that with today. The best President Donald Trump can muster is a tweet: “Everyone should be calm and safe!”
A new Cold War
It’s time to admit that we’re in a new Cold War. The blockade of Berlin in 1948 was widely seen as the opening salvo of the decades-long struggle between freedom and communism. With Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong already well underway, maybe now we’ll admit that another struggle has arrived. The Soviet Union is gone, and America’s new adversary is the Chinese Communist Party.
Yet unlike the first Cold War, this time it’s unclear whether America has the will to win.
When we were up against the Soviet Union, we stood without apology for our civilization and for freedom. For nearly half a century, we made it clear that our way of life was superior, that liberty was everyone’s birthright, and that we would support free people, wherever they were. By holding aloft the torch of freedom, we illuminated the monstrous evil of communism.
No longer. The United States is apparently unwilling to make the case for freedom — or even to publicly say a free city like Hong Kong even deserves to stay free. America having put down the torch of freedom, communist tyranny is on the march, no longer content to gather strength in the shadows.
Worse, while we have forgotten the lessons of the first Cold War, the Chinese Communist Party has learned from them.
We should learn from the Cold War: Compete hard, hold fast to our values
Beijing knows that ideology is everything. Whereas Soviet leaders gave up on communism, President Xi Jingping has doubled down. He has stepped up repression at home and aggression abroad. The lack of U.S. pushback has only emboldened Xi. The tepid U.S. condemnation of human rights abuses in Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as its threats against its neighbors and Taiwan, has likely convinced Xi that he can get away with oppressing Hong Kong.
Continued American silence will convince Communist China that it can advance on other fronts. The moral imperative is to show Beijing that Hong Kong’s freedom isn’t up for grabs.
America must show leadership
Such leadership could take many forms. At a minimum, it should involve congressional legislation that would end U.S. special treatment of Hong Kong on trade and immigration. Such a blow would hit Communist China in the wallet, hard.
It could even involve President Trump flying to Hong Kong, like JFK did in West Berlin after the construction of the Berlin Wall. Such a move isn’t out of the question for a president known for unorthodox actions. It would electrify the city’s freedom movement — and terrify Beijing.
Above all, America needs to start criticizing Communist China for being communist, just as we used to do with the Soviet Union. At present, our leaders are only asking — half-heartedly — for Beijing’s tyranny to stop at Hong Kong’s border. Compare that with Reagan’s call to “tear down this wall.” He knew that freedom would swiftly sweep across Eastern Europe if the wall fell — and it did.
Such American leadership is desperately needed today. At the outset of the first Cold War, the Soviet Union tried to dominate Berlin, precisely because they knew that the free city showed the moral bankruptcy of their totalitarian regime. China is trying to do the same thing with Hong Kong.
If we don’t stand for freedom there, then we’re already losing this new Cold War.
Marion Smith is executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter: @smithmarion
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: America must show leadership in Hong Kong and China conflict