When historians write of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s muscular moves to smother freedom, Hong Kong will feature prominently.
Roiled by sustained and spontaneous protests throughout last year, Hong Kong’s umbrella movement which opened in 2014 has been slammed shut. First, the pandemic precluded large gatherings, and then a draconian new National Security Law enacted in the summer put dissenters in peril. Now the Hong Kong government has passed a measure disqualifying four pro-democracy lawmakers, prompting a bloc of fifteen others to resign in protest. It is a brave but risky move to preempt a similar arbitrary dismissal in the belief that Beijing should uphold its commitment to “one country, two systems.”
Hong Kong’s pan-democratic coalition within the Legislative Council (LegCo) of Hong Kong was one of the last official outlets for dissent within the former British colony. Britain acquired the sparsely inhabited rocky outcrop in 1841 when the Qing dynasty backed down in the face of a vastly superior naval fleet. From the 1960s, and especially after Deng Xiaoping announced an Open Door policy in 1978, the Crown Colony emerged as a leading hub of finance, trade, tech transfer, and intelligence between East and West. But in 1997, when the size of Hong Kong’s economy represented nearly 20 percent rather than less than 3 percent of China’s GDP, Britain returned the territory. Even though China pledged that Hong Kong would enjoy “a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defense affairs” for half a century, the territory’s star as the leading capitalist center in Asia began to dim.
Xi’s policies of co-option, coercion, and concealment, as former national security advisor H. R. McMaster has labeled them, made Chief Executive Carrie Lam the cat’s paw of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Now the seventy-member LegCo is losing its role as a safe space for democratic expression, within a territory that has provided a safe space for the global engagement of China.
The Biden administration’s handling of Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s autonomy is a bellwether of the incoming administration’s new-and-improved China policy.
Biden advisers have already signaled the need to reassess the U.S.-China relationship. They have variously argued that the two protagonists wage “competition without catastrophe,” in a relationship so interconnected that it is “too big to fail,” and one so potentially cataclysmic it must limit differences to a “cooperative rivalry.”
Ely Ratner, a shrewd China hand working for then-Vice President Biden, experienced the agony of watching the Obama administration’s tepid response to Beijing’s artificial island-building and bullying in the South China Sea. Now he calls for a tougher if selective approach, one he has called for “differentiation.” In effect, Ratner’s argument is that America needs to focus on the most critical and realistic ways to remain competitive by choosing battles wisely and carefully aligning U.S. and allied means. It is excellent advice, but easier to assert than to implement.
Ratner is a member of President-elect Joe Biden’s experienced transition team at the Department of Defense. He and others need to work across the U.S. interagency to contemplate various facets of a comprehensive response to impose costs on China’s malign activities in the following ways.
First, the incoming administration should respond to the silencing of pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong by turning up the volume on democracy promotion. In a measured manner, Biden should follow through on his campaign promise to renew the spirit of democracy at home and abroad and to underscore America’s traditional support for the oppressed. The Trump administration has shone a spotlight on some egregious abuses of human rights—notably the forced detention of more than a million Uighur Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. But President Donald Trump’s embrace of authoritarian leaders undercut America’s soft power.
A second step in the Biden playbook should be to mobilize allies and partners in a coalition of the willing. Forging a coalition of like-minded states (through a global “Summit for Democracy” or a “D-10”) will remind Beijing that cracking down on democracy jeopardizes the legitimacy of China’s leadership. While the Trump administration helped to catalyze democratic governments such as Japan, Australia, and India through a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a Biden government will hope to rely more on persuasion than arm-twisting. In practice, that will mean not treating allies and partners as the same or worse than adversaries and competitors by imposing tariffs over trade imbalances, threatening troop withdrawals unless host-nation support rises dramatically, and forging a cooperative strategy based on shared interests and common values.
Third, the new administration should help provide Hong Kongers safe refuge. Over the past two years, some young democracy protesters, including at least one born in America, were denied a haven at the U.S. consulate. Others encountered harrowing obstacles when fleeing to Taiwan (by speedboat) and other destinations. Britain has offered a pathway to citizenship, and Australia has offered 10,000 Hong Kong students and workers a safe haven. The United States and like-minded states should put in place policies that provide a safe exit for those who have been courageous enough to stand up to dictatorial power imposed from afar.
Fourth, the Biden administration should burnish its toolkit of economic incentives and disincentives, including the use of targeted sanctions. For instance, the 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act could put some teeth into an otherwise rhetorical and humanitarian policy response to the crackdown in Hong Kong. However, finding sanctions with bite without jeopardizing markets, trade, and investment, and other interests with China, is why Beijing’s reactions to such steps will be intended to nullify if not reverse such steps.
Finally, President-elect Biden should move to reassure Taiwan that America will not allow it to become the next Hong Kong. Even statements made during the transition can send a clear signal to Beijing. While the Biden administration should inject more predictability into foreign policy and help place a floor beneath the U.S.-China relationship, it must avoid shaking the confidence of democratic Taiwan. Thus, a significant part of Biden administration policy in defense of a free and open Indo-Pacific region—or whatever terminology it adopts—will require the smart use of both soft and hard power to maintain a dynamic equilibrium across the Taiwan Strait.
Similar challenges await in both the East China Sea and the South China Sea because Beijing claims the broad area overlaps with its sovereignty. Unlike more distant and global policies, the CCP is less inclined to show flexibility and will sorely test America’s political will should it give a hint of weakness. So, the trick will be to convince Beijing that the use of force and coercion will backfire—jeopardizing Chinese interests rather than securing them. This will necessitate what Kurt Campbell has called strategic clarity but tactical ambiguity. We must, with others, do so while remaining acutely aware of U.S. interests in preserving stability. Protecting the voices of democratic Taiwan by precipitating a major war would represent a failure of strategy for all concerned.
In short, Hong Kong is a dual test of the incoming Biden administration’s revised approach to China and the elevation of human rights and democracy. We should all hope it succeeds in preventing the collapse of democratic voices in Hong Kong’s legislature from becoming a harbinger of an ever-widening regional sphere of surveillance and subjugation.
Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Asia-Pacific Security Chair at Hudson Institute.