NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE W hile it’s tempting to compare the present suppression of Hong Kong’s freedoms by Chinese Communists to the Soviet crushing of Hungary in 1956 or the Prague Spring of 1968, the situation probably has more in common with the events of 1947.
At the start of that year, Hungary was still nominally a republic, though Soviet troops had never left the country. After a string of dismal electoral showings — two years earlier, the Communists had only mustered 17 percent of the national vote — the Soviet Union was fed up with the vagaries of democracy. When the Western powers negotiated a peace treaty with Hungary, the Russians installed a puppet government, and that was that. The Allies viewed Hungary as a nation within the Soviet sphere; the United States wasn’t going to go to war over such a small country — not in 1947, not in 1956, never. Nor were we going to spark a world war with the Soviets over Czechoslovakia, which would meet the same fate as Hungary in 1948. So the Iron Curtain went up, and it stayed up for nearly 45 years.
I fear Hong Kong is in for the same fate. No one is going to war over the city. No Western power has done much of anything since China began enforcing the odious “national-security law” it forced on Hong Kongers. Maybe there isn’t much that can be done.
Those who believe we can punish China into adopting more liberal attitudes through economic sanctions are probably fooling themselves. The Chinese Communists were no more inclined to respect individual liberties when they ran one of the poorest and most insular nations in the world. If anything, they acted with even more brutality. No state has ever murdered, tortured, imprisoned, and terrorized more of its own people.
Meanwhile, those who believed that economic liberalization would inevitably lead to political liberalization have been proven wrong. Beijing has merely figured out new ways to control the Chinese people, building the creepiest, most technologically sophisticated surveillance state the world has ever seen.
But it is alarming how little the world has to say about China’s repression of Hong Kong. One needn’t be a strident anti-Communist to note that Chinese money and propaganda, rank cowardice and greed, and a growing enthusiasm for collectivism in the West probably have something to do with it.
In fact, the Chinese government is by now quite adept at spreading disinformation through Western institutions of higher education and media outlets; it’s spent at least $19 million on big American newspapers over the past few years, though some outlets such as NBC News will often do the work for free. In 1956, the Hungarian revolutionary was Time magazine’s Man of the Year, but these days the New York Times runs a series of odes to communism and Teen Vogue will tell its readers about the necessity crushing property rights and controlling the petit bourgeois. Then there is the NBA, whose stars could easily raise awareness for Chinese dissidents, but choose to protect the league’s bottom line instead. At least the fellow travelers of the Cold War had the decency to defend despotism for ideological reasons.
All of this explains why Hong Kong, though in the news, isn’t being treated as the tragedy that it is for the Chinese people and the world. Hong Kong, like Taiwan, has always been an example of what a free China might look like. As Chinese were starving and stumbling from one bloody five-year tragedy to the next during the latter half of the 20th century, Hong Kong was thriving under a system that can only be described as the anthesis of the mainland’s.
Maybe that’s part of the problem.
In 1980, the economist Milton Friedman portrayed the city in his highly influential book and documentary, Free to Choose, as the exemplar of free markets. “Hong Kong has no tariffs or other restraints on international trade,” he wrote. “It has no government direction of economic activity, no minimum wage laws, no fixing of prices. The residents are free to buy from whom they want, sell to whom they want, to invest however they want, to hire whom they want, to work for whom they want.” P. J. O’Rourke’s profile of the tumultuous city, included in his essay collection Eat the Rich, described Hong Kong as a place that could “make everything from nothing.” He concluded that “the British colonial government turned Hong Kong into an economic miracle by doing nothing.”
These days, the only thing more offensive than praising colonial rule might be praising laissez faire economics. Yet the economic system Western elites keep telling us can’t work ensured that one of the most densely populated cities in the world — at last count, around 68,000 residents per square mile — was also one was one of the most successful. Hong Kong still had strong banking and legal systems. It had little corruption, crime, public debt, or poverty. Its GDP per capita was one of the highest in the world. “The people of Hong Kong have been free to do what they wanted,” O’Rourke concluded, “and what they wanted was, apparently, to create a stewing pandemonium: crowded, striving, ugly, and the most fabulous city on earth.”
O’Rourke wrote those words in 1997, the year the British transferred sovereignty of the city to China. Now, 23 years later, it is likely that protesters who took real risks to oppose a genuine tyranny — from Agnes Chow and Jimmy Laito to the countless others whose names we will never know — will be threatened or imprisoned into silence. In that, they will be like millions of other victims of communism in its various nightmarish forms. It’s a tragedy that there is no great movement in the West to speak for them.