Hong Kong and the Price of Freedom

Anti-government demonstrators are detained by riot police during a protest in Hong Kong, China, May 27, 2020. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)
Hong Kong reaches a crossroads.

Beijing’s attempt to impose a national-security law on Hong Kong that would vitiate the city’s semi-autonomous status and undermine its common-law system is the most important political story in the world right now.

Why? Because it demonstrates a lesson we all need to internalize. The West long ago convinced itself that Chinese economic development would eventually lead to Chinese political liberalization, having previously applied the same theory to Warsaw Bloc countries in the later stages of the Cold War. In Poland and Czechoslovakia, history proved the theory to be precisely backward: Political revolution preceded economic reform. In China, a West-enabled economic boom has coincided with the Communist Party’s predatory capture of industries and the skills that go with them, which in turn has made the Party’s grip on political power and its influence over neighboring countries and the West only stronger.

For doe-eyed analysts of the 1990s, political and trade liberalization were two sides of the same coin; free nations would necessarily have an easier time accessing capital, manufacturing goods, and achieving prosperity. But China’s rise hasn’t worked like that. At the time of the peaceful handover of Hong Kong from the British in 1997, the city accounted for nearly 20 percent of the entire Chinese economy. Now, it accounts for less than 3 percent. Beijing recognizes the strong leverage that decline affords it, and has set out to make Hong Kong choose between prosperity and freedom: The city’s massive civic-protest movement against mainland subversion has been incredibly disruptive to its economy.

The pretense that China is just another “market player” allows China to put the same question to the West’s technocrats: What do you really value in the grand scheme of things — this abstraction called “political freedom,” or the freedoms that come from putting bread on the table?

From the Belt and Road initiative across Eurasia, to Huawei’s efforts to muscle in on 5G networks across Europe and the world, to China’s privileged position in Apple’s supply chain, Beijing consistently forces some version of this choice between material comfort and political freedom on others. Try to convince yourself that Chairman Xi doesn’t smile knowing that Apple CEO Tim Cook freely criticizes religious-freedom laws in the United States, but remains silent while the Chinese government rotates persecuted and interned Uighur Muslims into the factories of Apple’s subcontractors.

Hong Kongers have fought Beijing’s efforts valiantly. They turned back previous CCP attempts to consolidate power in 2003, in 2014, and last year. So we shouldn’t accept that Beijing’s subversion of Hong Kong is a fait accompli.

Well-intentioned proposals to open our countries to Hong Kongers and inflict brain drain on Hong Kong are premature and perhaps unwise. They would hurt those left behind in the city as much as dramatic trade actions would. Diplomatic efforts, meanwhile, need to focus on detaching European leaders from their long-standing hopes that China could serve as a welcome geopolitical counterweight to the U.S. Prime Minister Boris Johnson should be prodded — even shamed, if necessary — into doing his duty and standing by the terms of the 1997 handover. Angela Merkel and others should be reminded of the costs to native industry and political independence that deals with China carry. Coordinated efforts to stand up and even recapture key industries should be made by Western leaders so that their successors don’t have to make as many economically painful decisions in an effort to protect national sovereignty and political freedom.

Hong Kong may have more levers of power than it realizes. Much of the capital invested into mainland China and many of the enterprises that have entered the country have come through the city, because of its more secure property rights and its independent courts. An intelligent strategy of dissent in the street and wisely targeted diplomatic entreaties to sympathetic political and corporate leaders could put the choice between prosperity and freedom back on the CCP, and make freedom the more attractive of the two to Xi.

In a world that is quite cynical about power and money, Hong Kongers are doing something that should inspire all of us, demonstrating that freedom cannot be sold cheaply. We owe them — and ourselves — the best backup we can muster.


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