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Hong Kong's protests against China show U.S. appeasement of Beijing has failed to bring reform

A policy of moderation through economic seduction was delusional, but a shift to economic coercion without emphasizing human rights will be just as ineffective.
Image: Protesters clash with police after a rally against an extradition law in Hong Kong on June 10, 2019.
Protesters clash with police after a rally against a proposed extradition law in Hong Kong.Anthony Kwan / Getty Images

Violent clashes have broken out in Hong Kong following protests that saw an estimated 1 million residents take to the streets over the weekend. The demonstrators oppose a proposed law that would allow those suspected of criminal offenses to be extradited to mainland China. Hong Kong citizens fear that, if the bill is adopted, China’s notoriously repressive and corrupt criminal laws will be used against Beijing’s political opponents in Hong Kong.

Twenty-two years ago, on July 1, 1997, the British government handed over control of Hong Kong to China. Beijing inherited a thriving market economy shaped by British democratic norms and the rule of law. At the time, Western governments hoped that money — in this case, Hong Kong’s booming economy — would induce China to honor its pledge of “one country, two systems,” and ensure that the city remained the financial capital of Asia with its democratic traditions intact.

To its credit, the Trump administration seems to be acknowledging that a tougher line against China is finally warranted.

The proposed bill at the center of the protests now makes it abundantly clear that this was a delusion: The main imperative for Beijing is keeping its power intact, and taking away the remaining freedoms in Hong Kong that challenge the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party.

Hong Kong is a model of openness that threatens the party because it demonstrates that the citizens of Chinese states can be both free and rich. These protests are exactly the sort of free expression that the U.S. should be championing so that Hong Kong can retain this character rather than cling to the quixotic notion that Beijing will reform without pressure because of the inducements of capitalism. To its credit, the Trump administration seems to be acknowledging that a tougher line against China is finally warranted.

The idea that money would seduce the hard men of Beijing into becoming responsible global stakeholders has dominated the thinking of U.S. foreign policy and business establishments since President Richard Nixon and his national security consigliore Henry Kissinger engineered their historic outreach to China in the 1970s to further split the alliance between China and the Soviet Union, then already beginning to break due to ideological competition over leadership of the communist world. Their thesis: Money would moderate the revolutionary zeal and authoritarian repression of Chairman Mao.

Their geopolitical strategy worked as Beijing moved closer to the United States and away from the Soviet Union. And, for a time, their moderation theory seemed to be validated, as Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping undertook market reforms and dangled the possibility of further political reforms. With U.S. guidance, they believed, China would be integrated as a “responsible stakeholder” in the American-dominated liberal international order and the West would profit handsomely.

But Washington became a hostage to these expectations. When Deng unleashed the Chinese military in 1989 against student protestors in Tiananmen Square, the George H.W. Bush administration resisted calls for American action against those who’d ordered the brutal crackdown. Punitive measures would only empower the “hard-liners” against the Deng “moderates” with whom the West needed to engage.

Subsequent administrations both Democratic and Republican perpetuated this policy, which was based more on hopeful theories than the rather depressing facts. China was permitted to join the World Trade Organization without evidence that it was prepared to play by WTO rules, including the protection of intellectual property. (Despite its international reputation for money laundering and proliferation finance, China in July is set to assume the presidency of the Financial Action Task Force, which is the global standard-bearer in combating illicit finance.)

Meanwhile, former government officials seeking to cash in on China adopted the Kissinger model of working with lucrative advisory firms to facilitate market access for Chinese companies to the West and vice-versa.

The Chinese saw this acquiescence as a green light for continued bad behavior. The Chinese economy boomed as state-supported companies dominated export markets and stole Western intellectual property with Chinese state connivance. Chinese hackers targeted U.S. companies and stole the background data of hundreds of thousands of U.S. national security officials.

On the human rights front, China’s repression of its own citizens was met with a collective global yawn even as Beijing jailed dissidents, deployed mass surveillance of its citizens and imposed severe censorship of the internet and news media. Most egregiously, up to 1 million Muslim Uighurs are estimated to have been herded into concentration camps in China’s western Xinjiang province. Entire families reportedly have vanished while others have faced torture and been required to renounce their Islamic faith because Uighur separatist movements have sought independence from Beijing.

What’s to be done? The Trump administration has thankfully abandoned the delusions of economic seduction and forced official Washington to confront the economic and military threats from China. The administration’s national security strategy has driven a bipartisan shift from engagement to strategic competition. The president’s trade wars, while regrettably roiling markets and undermining the allies most likely to join the U.S. against China, are a shrewd move that’s starting to shift global supply chains and penalize Chinese predatory trade and intellectual property practices.

On the human rights front, China’s repression of its own citizens was met with a collective global yawn.

But if a policy of moderation through economic seduction was delusional, a shift to economic coercion without a focus on Chinese Communist Party repression will be equally ineffective. It’s the totality of China’s bad actions that must be confronted in order to effect the change that its citizens and the world need.

The hard men of Beijing fear their own people and the tens of millions of prosperous and free Chinese in the region. Defending Hong Kong’s protesters, Xinjiang’s imprisoned Uighurs and China’s other repressed citizens is not only a moral imperative for America. It’s a smart and strategic one, too.