The denizens of Zhongnanhai have never understood democracy. In the People’s Republic of China, people are expected to do and believe what they are told. Few disobey, especially under Xi Jinping, who has moved Chinese society back toward Maoist totalitarianism.
Dictating to others does not work overseas, however. In 1996 Beijing’s leaders attempted to use missile tests to intimidate Taiwanese voters, who instead increased their support for Lee Teng-hui’s reelection.
In recent days the Xi government insisted that the Hong Kong authorities crackdown on democracy demonstrators and expected support from the special administrative region’s “silent majority.” Instead, the recent local election resulted in a popular tsunami against the PRC’s tightening noose. Even areas considered to be pro-China chose young freedom activists to dominate local councils.
Beijing was uncharacteristically stunned into silence. Eventually, the regime fell back on blaming America for manipulating public sentiment. As if pontificating diplomats convinced thousands of young Hong Kongers to create chaos on the streets and fortify universities against the unpopular, unrepresentative SAR government.
Such dedication comes from inside the person. In fact, despite having radically different perspectives, Mao Zedong and other early revolutionary leaders probably would have understood Hong Kong’s protestors. Why did the former sacrifice everything to make a revolution? Not because a Soviet diplomat urged them to do so.
In contrast, the current Chinese Communist Party is dominated by ambitious, self-serving careerists. Membership long has been viewed as an important if not the most important means to rise and prosper. Xi took on the pervasive corruption which had dragged down the CCP’s reputation, but conveniently targeted political opponents. He may truly believe that the Chinese people are best served by reviving the party’s brutal authority, but much of his support undoubtedly comes from those who just want to be on the winning side. If he stumbled, many now serving him would effortlessly shift their allegiance elsewhere.
Which helps account for Beijing’s apparent surprise at the electoral wipe-out. PRC officials can’t imagine such outrageous disobedience, especially given China’s ongoing squeeze at home of any independent thought and behavior. Moreover, aides to Xi and other top officials likely avoid telling unpleasant truths. Reporting that “They really hate you, your beliefs, and your policies” is not likely a good strategy for promotion. However, Chinese apparatchiks could not fake their way past an honest election.
No doubt claims of American culpability are a calculated attempt at blame-shifting. However, many Chinese probably believe it to be true, and not just because of government propaganda. Washington does routinely intervene in other nations around the world. And rarely for abstract humanitarianism objectives. Rather, the U.S. normally has a self-interested agenda to pursue and preferred outcome in mind.
In fact, the U.S. usually is far less effective in its actions than it claims and others believe. Often Washington ends up simply endorsing the course chosen by locals. That is the case in Hong Kong. Democracy activists, especially student shock troops, acted because they understood the important freedoms at risk, not because someone in America wanted them to do so.
But U.S. legislators and Hong Kong demonstrators alike now seem to be seeking to prove Xi & Co.’s complaint about Washington meddling to be true.
First, denizens of Capitol Hill ostentatiously postured for the cameras while seeking to dictate Chinese behavior in Hong Kong. Then they enthusiastically passed legislation that achieves little while claiming to protect the SAR from oversight by the country of which it is part. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 directs an annual review to ensure that the territory is “sufficiently autonomous” to warrant continued “unique treatment” through reduced trade barriers and orders imposition of sanctions on individuals found to violate Hong Kongers’ rights.
But the bill will achieve little in practice. The administration could conduct a review on its own and the measure mandates no action, none, should a negative conclusion result. Moreover, though the Xi government obviously would prefer not to lose the SAR’s special international economic entrée, a significant, violent suppression of the democracy movement would wreck the local economy before any action by the U.S. Worse, revoking Hong Kong’s special status would most dramatically harm Hong Kongers, making them more reliant on the mainland for economic security.
Targeted penalties make legislators feel good but have minimal impact on bad guys and won’t influence Chinese policy. Ironically, the most important provision of the act is directed against the U.S. State Department, ordering it to not deny visas to Hong Kong activists based on their protest activities. Such is fear of the Trump administration’s perverse war on any and all things foreign.
Second, insisting that Beijing behave as American congressmen and senators say it should is a prescription for failure. Leaders of a highly nationalistic rising power are not inclined to be lectured. They do not enhance their authority and credibility at home by yielding to demands from afar.
However, Xi’s government must take consequences into account. Congress could have approved a simple measure reaffirming that U.S. policy requires a review of any changes in Hong Kong since the SAR’s special trade treatment is based on its autonomous status. That policy was set by legislation passed in 1992 when Congress relied on the PRC’s commitment to preserving the territory’s separate system for 50 years after the planned 1997 turnover. Logically, if Hong Kong’s autonomy disappeared so would lower American tariffs.
Indeed, it is practical impacts—far more serious than higher tariffs—that so far have led the CCP leadership to eschew the use of Chinese riot police and army units and instead rely on Hong Kong personnel to keep order. Deploying PRC security forces against a population of 7.4 million largely united in opposition would threaten far greater carnage than Tiananmen Square. Beijing does not wish to risk such incalculable consequences.
Third, Hong Kongers held a “thanksgiving” rally waving American flags and lauding Washington for its assistance. No doubt, U.S. support is good for morale. But the Chinese leadership already believes Americans are using the conflict to the latter’s advantage and might believe its rhetoric about Washington being behind the unrest. The activists’ warm embrace suggests cooperation and coordination, even where none exists. Protestors are inadvertently inflating and highlighting America’s role in Beijing’s eyes. Carrying the flag of a nation increasingly seen as an adversary, a hostile state determined on containing the PRC, looks even more threatening.
Stoking Beijing’s paranoia would not matter so much if Washington’s strategy was effective. But the Human Rights and Democracy Act will not scare off leaders currently committed to oppressing the rest of their population. Zhongnanhai’s residents already have played the American imperialism card, denouncing Washington’s “doomed” plot. According to the foreign ministry: “This so-called legislation will only strengthen the resolve of the Chinese people, including the Hong Kong people, and raise awareness of the sinister intentions and hegemonic nature of the U.S.”
It will be no easy task to develop a policy toward a more aggressive and repressive China in the coming years. But the starting point should be a realistic assessment of America’s ability to effect change. Public pressure, no matter how well-intended, is likely to backfire. Who in the PRC leadership wants to be the appeaser who advocates surrendering to the U.S. on core issues, such as political control?
That doesn’t mean nothing can be done. No one in Zhongnanhai is going to propose independence or democracy for Hong Kong. But a concerted stance by the U.S., Europe, and friendly Asian states, with an insistent though private warning that blood on Hong Kong’s streets would mean a sharply negative turn in economic, diplomatic, and security relations with—and policy toward—Beijing might have a meaningful impact. Chinese officials know that economic growth is slowing and international hostility is rising. It is in their interest to avoid a confrontation with most of the PRC’s major trading partners and potential military antagonists.
Members of Congress deride President Trump’s foreign policy approach. Yet they consistently have been more destructive, turning sanctimonious lectures into an art form, promiscuously imposing sanctions without effect, and insisting on, without authorizing, endless wars.
Alas, in cases such as Hong Kong good intentions are not enough. Congress risks making a difficult problem even worse. So do the courageous activists hoping to preserve their freedoms.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.