Russia’s most dashing revolutionary Leon Trotsky once said, “Anyone desiring a quiet life has done badly to be born in the twentieth century.” A century later, his eloquent foreboding is even more palpable, given the concatenation of existential crises facing humanity, with no less than planetary climate change casting a long shadow on our future as a species. At the same time, we find ourselves in the midst of the most consequential geopolitical showdown in history, as the United States and China try to shape and reshape the contours of a new brave world on the ruins of a devastating pandemic.
But if one were to believe pundits and policymakers, what we are confronting is the latest iteration of a bipolar Cold War, with a resurgent China supplanting the once might Soviet Empire. In a searing address, which has evoked Raegan’s ‘evil empire’ speech, the U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has accused Beijing of seeking “global hegemony” and fatuous fidelity to a “bankrupt totalitarian ideology.” Titled “Communist China and the Free World’s Future,” America’s chief diplomat warned of a zero-sum struggle, whereby a Chinese victory could mean the end of freedom everywhere. Just in case anyone missed his point, Mr. Pompeo tweeted, with even less subtlety, “China is working to take down freedom all across the world.”
This represented an even more confrontational rhetoric than Vice President Mike Pence’s 2018 speech in Hudson Institute, where effectively declared the commencement of a new era of great power rivalry. Experts, however, were quick to point out the eerie similarity with President Harry Truman’s 1947 speech to Congress, where he warned of an existential struggle between “alternative ways of life,” namely between democratic freedom and Soviet Union’s totalitarianism, which “relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio; fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.” But as Russia expert and former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, has correctly pointed out, Xi Jinping is no Joseph Stalin, and we need to avoid lazy historical metaphors.
Upon closer examination, however, what becomes increasingly clear is that the term “Cold War” is far more applicable to the state of rivalry between the United States and China, since the latter represents a true peer with the kind of technological, demographic and economic prowess that the Soviets couldn’t have even dreamt of.
Moreover, “Cold War” was an absolutely misleading misnomer for a devastating global conflict, which claimed the lives of tens of millions of people throughout four decades and as many as 130 “proxy wars” between Washington and Moscow. For people in Asia, there was nothing “cold” about the Korean and Vietnam Wars, which devasted countless lives and reshaped the postwar history in ways hardly appreciated in the West. Make no mistake, the Sino-American rivalry is the real Cold War, and the crisis in Hong Kong is arguably the opening shot.
City on Fire
“Never trust China,” a Hong Kong protester told me at the height of the large-scale protests in 2019, which shook Asia’s financial center as well as the foundations of Chinese power like never before. “We are not fighting to gain anything, [but instead] we are fighting not to lose anything. I am worried about Hong Kong becoming China.” Perturbed by the news of incoming anti-riot police officers, we, along with dozens of other anxious protesters, rushed towards the train station in Sha Tin district to avoid batons, boots and bruises. Just minutes earlier, another protester—wearily protecting her identity behind a mask and face shield a year before a pandemic made those accessories ubiquitous part of our lives—made it clear that their struggle was about freedom, not economies.
She warned the world about blindly welcoming Chinese investments while ignoring its nefarious influence. She expressed her fears about a violent crackdown and dire repercussions for any protester identified by Hong Kong Police’s state-of-the-art surveillance technology. Her friend, sitting nearby with even heavier means of concealment that almost entirely covered her face, nodded in passionate agreement. The same sentiments were echoed by other protests, some of whom refused to conceal their identities and spoke with unremitting courage.
“The only thing I know is that no matter how much money I earn [because of Chinese investments], freedom is something I can’t earn from China,” another protester shared, who seemed no older than late-teen years. One could easily sense a mixture of fear and defiance vibrating through the air. That day, and less than an hour after skirting police crackdown near the trains station, I would find myself in the middle of an ocean of protesters marching through a designated with unforgettable discipline and conviction. Most people wore masks and almost everyone was in black t-shirts—a symbol of a hardening struggle for freedom.
A good number of student protesters were also preparing for violent confrontations by setting up barricades, passing on water bottles, and preparing for tear gas and worse. Unlike China’s fiercest critics in the West, these protesters, mostly in their teens and early 1920s, had no “distance from tyranny” and knew they stood little chance of success in an event of direct confrontation with the communist overlords in Zhongnanhai. And yet, they persevered, embodying what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben aptly described as the tragic “courage of hopelessness.”
Arriving on a tourist visa, and bereft of my journalist credentials, I was consciously aware of my vulnerability and the risks associated with reporting on the largest revolt to date against Beijing’s tightening grip on the city-state. I also worried about my guide, who was residing in Hong Kong as an overseas worker. And yet, both of us couldn’t ignore the gravity of the moment, ineluctably drawn to the sweeping motions of history unfolding before our eyes. In an attempt to make sure I had the best possible documentation of the upheavals, I foolishly rushed, soon after arriving in Hong Kong harbor, an expensive lens purchase in hopes of augmenting my camera’s resolution.
Guns of August
Almost exactly a year later, after careful calculation and amid a global pandemic that has bogged down its Western rivals and neighbors, Beijing dropped the “Sword of Damocles” to not only suppress but even eviscerate the democratic protests. Only a minority of those protests devolved into violence or contained protesters who called for full independence from China. China’s rubber-stamp legislature seamlessly approved a draconian National Security Law, which weaponized “law and order” regulations to portray any form of dissent as an act of terrorism and treason.
“The law is a ‘sword of Damocles’ hanging above extremely few criminals who are severely endangering national security,” warned Zhang Xiaoming, mainland China’s deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. “The law will deter foreign forces who try to interfere with Hong Kong affairs. The law is a turning point to put Hong Kong back on its track.” Soon, it became clear that China’s most feared security agencies, namely the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of State Security would have a direct role in facilitating the crackdown on democratic protests in Hong Kong.
To cushion the city-state from a massive economic meltdown, China’s communist rulers corralled not only Hong Kong’s pliant tycoons, but also the country’s state-backed tech giants such as Alibaba, NetEase, JD.com, and ByteDance, which have poured billions into Hong Kong’s stock markets and have rapidly expanded their presence in the city’s business center and iconic skyscrapers. Spurned in the West due to security concerns over Chinese investments, mainland tech giants have had even more reason to tighten their grip on Hong Kong’s shifting financial landscape.
On its part, Hong Kong authorities, cognizant of the gradual loss of their autonomy, have also begun rebranding the city-state as the ultimate “gateway to China.” Soon, it became clear that even in the midst of a pandemic there would be strategic consequences, as Western countries, Japan, and Taiwan began to step up their efforts to assist Hong Kong exiles and support its besieged democratic movement. By August, the Trump administration imposed a series of unprecedented sanctions, including on Hong Kong’s chief Carrie Lam for allegedly facilitating the suppression of basic rights of the city’s residents and erosion of the city’s promised autonomy.
The embattled Beijing protégé struck back, maintaining she “will not be intimidated,” even though she will face growing restrictions on her personal financial transactions. This came on top of a crucial executive order in July, which ended Hong Kong’s special status privileges, especially in the realm of trade and investments. “Hong Kong will now be treated the same as mainland China,” President Donald Trump said. “No special privileges, no special economic treatment, and no export of sensitive technologies.” Overnight, Hong Kong’s political elite became international pariah, as the United States even contemplated blanket sanctions on millions of Chinese communist party members.
The True Peer
For now, China seems to have won the day, pulling off the unthinkable in one of the world’s most important economic centers. But as Joseph Stalin found out only years following his infamous attempt to forcibly incorporate northern Iran into the Soviet sphere in the mid-1940s, betraying existing agreements with Western powers could precipitate a long, perilous and self-defeating conflict. While the Soviet land grab instigated the “Iran crisis” of 1946 and turned Persia into the crucible of Cold War, China’s brazen violation of its agreement with the West to respect Hong Kong’s special autonomy for at least five decades marks the official commencement of an even longer and contentious superpower showdown.