World

Hong Kong Protesters Wave the American Flag, but Is It Too Late?

An anti-extradition bill protester carries an American flag during the march at Mongkok, in Hong Kong, August 3, 2019. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)
They see something in us. We can see something of ourselves in them.

To state the obvious, everyone paying attention here in the States loves the Hong Kongers. Truly. I think we see our best selves in them. And the Hong Kongers waving American flags still see something in us, something that they want to be.

In fact, that’s what’s bothering me. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Have you heard Hong Kong’s new anthem? Perhaps it is a national anthem in the making. Don’t tell some of your more squeamish conservatives, but Hong Kongers — innovative though they are — are sticking to the old standbys when trying to rouse fellow feeling; the anthem includes prominent mentions of “blood” and “soil.” Martyrs for freedom tend to make it into anthems. Due process not so much, though that is what they are fighting for.

Last year 54 percent of foreign direct investment into China came through Hong Kong. Why? Because Hong Kong provides security and comfort. British and American firms have been doing business there longer than they have on the Mainland. English speakers are concentrated in Hong Kong. And the financial system there runs on principles similar to those in the U.K. and U.S.A., at least providing a level of comfort.

Working with Hong Kong made the Chimerican economic model work so well; it’s a testing ground. China has gotten used to collaborating with a territory that in law and commercial spirit was closer to the Anglosphere. I suppose, though, that as mainland China gets stronger, its relationship with Hong Kong was bound to be less “working with” Hong Kongers and more working them.

We have a lot in common with Hong Kong. I recently learned that for the past decades, Hong Kong and the United States have been the two largest markets for Swiss luxury watches. That makes a lot of sense, when you consider that Hong Kong is where Mainlanders come to shop for luxury goods. Calvin Coolidge said that the business of America is business. And it’s true as well for Hong Kong, which, like New York City, is a polity for high finance and the white-gloved shopkeepers who serve them.

Actually, Coolidge would have been more correct if he were talking about modern-day Hong Kong. Half the seats on the Legislative Council, which helps run Hong Kong, along with the executive, are indirectly elected by “functional constituencies,” these formalized special-interest groups, most of them coming directly out of the most important business sectors in Hong Kong: finance, logistics, tourism. Business interests can be coolly indifferent about liberty. Well-ordered liberty and a limited-government power is a great environment. But an unlimited government that loves business and is willing to subsidize it like crazy is sometimes more attractive to business. Resistance to that kind of government might mean giant protests that disrupt the shops, slow down tourism, and get reported in Switzerland as a giant threat to the sales of greater luxury items. Business interests like predictability. In recent years, the functional constituencies have been voting in a pattern that increasingly conflicts with and overrides those legislators directly elected by the people of Hong Kong. The direct election of all members of the Legislative Council by the people has been the most important issue in Hong Kong since about 2002.

And I’m starting to worry. I see Hong Kongers out in the streets, protesting for their liberties against an impassive, grinding, inscrutable party regime in Beijing, a regime that is willing to openly put a million people into re-education camps. And yet that regime has kept most of the global corporate world rooting for it to get relief in a trade war with a free country, the United States, in which those global corporations make most of their money. I look at the American flags aloft in Hong Kong and I think about our best and brightest foreign-policy minds. They also want relief for China, and they seem to think the real threat to the liberal world order is in places like Hungary. They make resigned noises about Beijing. It’s all so sad for the Hong Kongers, they imply. They give rather little thought to the possibility that determined and concentrated resistance — the desire to be ungovernable — actually makes a people ungovernable. These experts move back to their alarmist noises about Budapest, a national capital whose supposed “strongman” leader is so limited in geopolitical power, he pretty regularly has to convince his legislature to rewrite labor laws at the behest of a single German car manufacturer, and then watch the German press criticize him for imposing slavery on Hungarians.

When Lord Acton said, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he was referring not only to those who wield absolute power, but to the intellectuals and historians whose judgment is corrupted by the sway of power. Is something like that already happening? It’s ironic to recall that Acton was writing about the influence of the papacy. But in the 2010s, it is people in the papal court who praise Xi Jinping thought for providing China with a “positive national conscience.”

I’m worried that Hong Kongers have been deluding themselves the last 22 years. Or at least, not thinking too hard about the potential downsides of facilitating China’s rise, while they do business and hope for the best. And to state the obvious, I’m worried everyone here in the United States has done the same. The Hong Kongers see something in us. And I see something of us in them. I see Hong Kongers wave American flags and I think it is a sign: We’re next.

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