The images from Hong Kong over the weekend were heart-warming and awe-inspiring, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to streets and demanding freedom and democracy in defiance of the Chinese government’s brutal authoritarian crackdown. There’s hope that it’s reaching a critical mass that even the worst of the Chinese dictatorship can dish can’t resist, and that the people of the remarkable island city of Hong Kong will get the freedom they and democracy that all people of the earth deserve.
There’s also some faint hope that the movement will spread through the rest of authoritarian China, and perhaps even around the globe, but for the moment free and democratic America doesn’t seem to be playing its usual role in nudging it along.
President Donald Trump is waging a mutually destructive trade war with China over its undeniably unfair trading practices, but he still boasts of his close friendship with Chinese dictator Xi Jinping and doesn’t seem to care much about how his good buddy handles his pesky domestic protesters. In a series of “tweets” the president “tweeted” about how he was wreaking great damage on the Chinese economy, but late “tweeted’ that “I know President Xi of China very well. He is a great leader who very much has the respect of his people. He is also a good man in a ‘tough business.” I have ZERO doubt that if President Xi wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it. Personal meeting?”
Trump later clarified by “tweet” that he didn’t mean a personal meeting between himself and Xi, but rather a personal meeting between Xi and the hundreds of thousands of protestors flooding the streets of Hong Kong. We can’t imagine how those negotiations would turn out, nor can we imagine what Trump would consider a humane solution. In 1989 there was a mass demonstration on Tiananmen Square that threatened to bring freedom and democracy to China and the Chinese dictatorship squashed it with brutal force, and in a 1990 interview with Playboy Magazine Trump said “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it, then they were vicious, then they were horrible, but then they put it down with the power of strength. That shows you the power of strength.” When asked about it in a 2016 Republican primary debate, Trump insisted he wasn’t endorsing China’s response but clumsily explained, “I said that it was a strong, powerful government that put it down with strength. And then they kept down the riot.“
Trump used to wax nostalgic at his campaign rallies about how protestors would have been taken out stretchers, and he’s winked at or urged on on similarly rough responses to protests in Turkey, the Philippines, Hungary, Poland, Italy, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and of course Russia. Those brave souls taking to the streets of Hong Kong clearly cannot count on Trump’s support, and at this point we’d advise anyone thinking of taking to the streets against to be brave but cautious.
Meanwhile, we also notice that none of those damned Democrats running for president seem to care much about those brave souls on the streets of Hong Kong, or any of the rest of the yearning-to-be-free world. Thus far the Democratic primary debates have been mostly about free this and free that for everyone in America, along with the usual promises made to various classes and races and sexual orientations within our borders, and somehow foreign policy never seems to come up. It might seem a missed opportunity for the Democrats, given what a mess Trump has made of foreign policy, but all of them seem to have the same Democratic instincts for protectionist trade policies and the same aversion to meddling in the world’s affairs on behalf of freedom and democracy.
Which seems to be where the rest of America’s at these days, in its time of relative economic prosperity and severe self-doubt. The once-iconic Democratic President John Kennedy vowed at his inauguration that America “shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any fried, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty,” but the Democrats jumped ship on that when the Vietnam War went sour and haven’t gotten back on since. The once-iconic President Ronald Reagan ultimately won the Cold War with similarly tough anti-Soviet rhetoric and no bullets fired, despite cutting off authoritarian allies in the Philippines and elsewhere, but these days most of the Republicans remember him as the guy who have gave amnesty to a bunch of Mexicans, and Republicans seem to have little regard for the people bravely pouring into the dangerous streets of Hong Kong.
By the vagaries of history China gave Great Britain a 99-year lease on Hong Kong after Britain got the best of a war over tea and opium, and despite Britain’s reputation for harsh colonial rule it granted the island city an unprecedented freedom and democracy, and the enterprising people of Hong Kong made it a very profitable enterprise even at Britain’s reasonable tax rates. When the lease ran out in 1997 Britain honored its deal, and the Chinese were at first willing to take its fair share of the profits from the roaring Hong Kong enterprise, but since then they’ve been cracking down on all that freedom and democracy the Hong Kong protestors had become accosted to over 99 years.
For obvious reasons we’re not running for president on either party’s ticket, but if we were there seems to be an opening here. America’s engagement in the rest of the world has always a messy business, to be sure, but under Republican and Democratic administrations America’s disengagement has always proved worse. In the short term standing up for Hong Kong’s freedom-loving and democratic protestors might not help Trump negotiate a trade war peace with his buddy Xi, but in the long run a free and democratic Chinese government is more likely to arrive at a mutually beneficial trade deal. Some Democrat might yet make a bold stand on behalf of the Hong Kong protestors, but he or she won’t want to negotiate with a more capitalist and formidable China anymore than Trump does.
Still, we hold out hope for the best. Freedom and democracy are resilient ideas, both here and abroad.