photo of the Legislative Council Building in Hong Kong by Wikimedia Commons user Gloriashek91,
licensed under CC BY-SA
China’s latest move against the remaining shreds of Hong Kong’s political freedom, though unsurprising, still warrants an international response. But with the United States transitioning to a new administration, who should do the responding?
We ought to profit from the experience of the past four years and leave it up to the incoming foreign policy team of President-elect Joe Biden. I do not count on any such profit, however.
For one thing, last week when Hong Kong disqualified four pro-democracy lawmakers and 15 others resigned in protest, the incumbent President Donald Trump had not acknowledged that we will soon have a new administration. That is an entirely separate problem, albeit one that will fix itself in due course.
Beyond that, Trump has made a hard-nosed approach to China part of his personal brand. And when it comes to a departing president imposing sanctions for foreign misbehavior, Trump has a much bigger ax to grind than the one he carries for the recent election.
Scarcely three weeks before Trump was sworn into office, then-President Barack Obama announced a range of sanctions against Russian diplomats, intelligence agencies and sundry officials. These sanctions were a response to Russia’s efforts to manipulate the 2016 presidential election. American intelligence officials had concluded that beyond sowing discord, the Russians actively sought to promote Trump’s candidacy and oppose his defeated rival, Hillary Clinton.
Trump saw this as part of a broader effort by Obama and other Democrats to undermine the legitimacy of his own election. Events snowballed from there. Michael Flynn, who became Trump’s first national security advisor, urged Russia’s ambassador to respond modestly to Obama’s sanctions, pending actions Trump might take once he assumed office. Intelligence intercepts captured the conversation. The attention Flynn got from the numerous officials eager to “unmask” him in those intercepts came close to qualifying him as an A-list celebrity. Flynn was forced to resign, in large part for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with the Russians. His subsequent prosecution, first by the Justice Department and later, in effect, by a federal judge after Justice sought to drop the charges, is a saga in itself.
So while there may be a lot of merit in an outgoing president deferring to his successor on the nature of any sanctions the successor could be left to enforce, I do not envision Trump being particularly deferential to Obama’s former vice president on the matter. Last week, national security adviser Robert O’Brien said the United States would bring further sanctions against those “responsible for extinguishing Hong Kong’s freedom,” with little indication of a planned waiting period.
In any case, sanctioning China for its latest crackdown in Hong Kong is about as useful as sanctioning a skunk for being a skunk. It can’t help but be what it is. You either have to accept it or deal with it.
China’s pledge to maintain Hong Kong’s political freedoms until 2047 has been a dead letter since at least mid-2019. That fact was reinforced by the draconian security law Beijing promulgated for the former British territory some six months ago. This is a terrible disappointment and sad fact of life for the people of that city. For the rest of us, it means Hong Kong is functionally a Chinese city like Shanghai, Beijing or Wuhan. Anyone somehow unaware of this reality can take the recent departure, voluntary and involuntary, of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy legislators as a wake-up call.
Imposing short-term, targeted sanctions against Beijing for governing Hong Kong the way it governs the rest of China – apart from Taiwan, whose autonomous liberty it also seeks to eventually extinguish – is short-sighted. It makes more sense to deal with China realistically all the time, not just when it showcases its authoritarian form.
China is a one-party state, effectively controlled by one man, who shows no sign of stepping down anytime soon. It honors agreements, respects legal procedure and recognizes the property rights of others only when doing so is expedient. It walls itself off from outside influence via its Great Firewall, while using the internet to take what it can and to compromise its opponents.
This may not be the China we want, but it is the China we got. We have to deal with it. Specifically, Joe Biden and his team will have to deal with it, beginning in two months’ time and for at least the next four years. So if the outbound administration is not prepared to coordinate any near-term response with the new administration, it should just leave matters to them – as Obama should have left Russia to Trump on the eve of the last presidential transition.