Hong Kong and the Rest of Us

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.

Questioning Camelot

Our favorite gag by the late Johnny Carson always followed his occasional failed monologue jokes about Abraham Lincoln., when he would exaggeratedly grimace at the audience’s silence and then turn to Ed McMahon to say “Too soon.”
The old show-biz admonition to allow a considerate pause between tragedy and comedy is very much on our mind as we approach Friday’s 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John Kennedy. A half-century is still too soon to be jocular about something so tragic as a presidential assassination, but neither are we inclined to join in the incessant hagiography that has become a cottage industry since Kennedy’s death.
It is altogether fitting and proper that the coverage of the anniversary should be respectful, but it should also be true. Most of the media can be expected to take full advantage of the opportunity to trot out all of the left’s most cherished myths about St. Kennedy of Camelot, which will be presented anew to the gullible generations too young to recall the reality of his presidency and too incurious to have learned about it, and there will be the usual efforts to cast the light of this revisionist history on current events. A more truthful account, as usual, would be more useful.
Kennedy will be recalled as a charismatic exemplar of modern liberalism, a sort of paler ‘60s prototype of President Barack Obama without all the computer glitches, but many of his policies would be anathema to today’s Democrats. Perhaps Kennedy’s brightest idea was a massive tax cut, which not only drastically lowered rates for businesses but also dropped the now-hated top 1 percent’s rates from the confiscatory 91 percent that had last through the allegedly right-wing Eisenhower administration to a still-exorbitant 70 percent, and it set off such an economic boom in the ensuing decade that the country could afford hippies. Some of his policies reflected the traditional Democratic enthusiasm for busy-body big government, but on the whole the bootlegger’s son seemed to have a natural affinity for capitalism.
The peaceniks in the Democratic party should also be reminded by that Kennedy ran as a stauncher cold warrior than the world champion commie-baiter Richard Nixon, and cultivated a very masculine image based largely on his war exploits. He vowed at his inaugural to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty,” which is hard to imagine Obama ever uttering, and was true enough to the words to incur the wrath of at least one Castro-loving left-winger with Marine marksmanship training. After failing to pay any price or bear any burden during the ill-fated Bay of Pigs attack in Cuba, and an unimpressive summit in Vienna, Kennedy made less of an impression on the Soviet leadership, leading to the Berlin Wall crisis and the Cuban missile crisis and a widespread uneasiness that the world was about to go up in a nuclear mushroom cloud, but the response was least more muscular than the modern Democrats would be comfortable with.
There’s no way of proving or disproving the left’s holy writ that Kennedy would not have further involved America in the Vietnam War, which is the basis of all the more creative conspiracy theories regarding his assassination, but there is cause for doubt. It should be noted that Kennedy did increase the number of military advisors in the country, that President Lyndon Johnson further escalated the war with combat troops on the advice of the same “best and brightest” advisors that Kennedy had chosen, and with the same “pay any price, bear any burden” rhetoric of his predecessor, and that Kennedy had been sufficiently interested in Vietnam’s civil war to tacitly green-light a coup that led to the assassination of South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem. Kennedy’s father had seen his own presidential ambitions devastated by a defeatist isolationism prior to World War II, and his brief years in office suggest he had learned well not to pass on a war that might prove popular. Liberals are still entitled to their Gnostic faith that no Castro-loving left-winger would have ever shot Kennedy, we suppose, but the enduring theory that the Great Society and the War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Act and the rest of the Johnson administration was a right-wing conspiracy strikes us as highly implausible.
Kennedy wasn’t so liberal as Johnson, but he wasn’t nearly conservative enough that the right should embrace his legacy. His initial wobbliness on foreign affairs was almost Obamaian, he had the same rhetorical tendency as his Democratic successors to ink of his countrymen as a collective rather than individuals, and of course there was the reckless and dangerous womanizing that liberals were obliged to defend during the Clinton years. Most of the blame for the disastrous social engineering efforts of the ‘60s falls on Johnson, but almost all of it was sold as an idea that the sainted Kennedy had vaguely proposed in one of his bleeding heart speeches. That Kennedy remains such an iconic figure on the left is sufficient reason to question his legacy thoroughly.

— Bud Norman