American Folly: China, Hong Kong, Democracy

Hong Kong’s current resistance to an increasingly authoritarian China is indicative of the Western World’s folly that began with President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China. The United States’ then-assumption that a diplomatic opening to China, and consequently the opening of American markets to Chinese goods, would result in the liberalization of China’s political life turned out to be a monumentally false assumption. Over the past four decades, as China’s economic power has grown, so too has its capacity to project military power farther afield, resulting in saber rattling at Pacific neighbors including Vietnam and Japan. Ironically, in an effort to contain the then-Soviet Union, the United States fed its true great power rival of the 21st century, China, with the economic growth it needed to consolidate its hold on the Asia Pacific. Consequently, the United States handed China four decades of peace during which it could grow its economy and military power.

The Nixon Administration suffered a fundamental failure of strategic imagination: with its booming population, China long term would turn out to be the far more dangerous great power opponent in comparison to Russia. The consequences of this strategic blunder are today obvious: the presumed Chinese social and political liberalization never materialized; instead, today we ironically have a China that seizes American artificial intelligence (AI) and facial recognition technology to develop ever more oppressive monitoring tools to use against its citizens. This high-tech Big Brother apparatus is improving with each passing day, snuffing out any true hope of Chinese dissidents ever effectively organizing a democratic resistance.

This phenomenon is well-demonstrated in Hong Kong’s current resistance to the growing Chinafication of their political and judicial systems. Today, the Chinese mainland is seeking to suffocate Hong Konger democratic sentiment. Though China has suffered a setback via the travails of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, as she suffers resistance from Hong Kongers concerning possible extradition to mainland China for crimes, this is but a temporary victory for Hong Konger democracy. The overriding trend is already in place: increasing government surveillance of the Hong Kong populace, an increasing culture of cracking down on peaceful protest, and an increased willingness to overtly challenge Western support for pro-democracy sympathizers. And with the rising military and economic might of China, formerly passionate foreign supporters of democracy are increasingly cowed into silence for fear of Chinese reprisals.

Now is the time for the United States to reverse decades of flawed policy based on the fundamentally false assumption that building up China’s economy within the Western world order would lead to a more democratic China, and begin to fully support both Hong Kong and Taiwan in the face of heightening Chinese intimidation tactics against their democratic institutions and pro-democracy populace. The Trump Administration’s continued trade tariffs and other countermeasures are wisely restricting Chinese access to American intellectual property. The United States would be wise to work more closely with its major domestic AI developers such as Google to constructively navigate how American private enterprise may inadvertently transfer critical AI technology know-how to China. Without a focused public/private partnership within the United States, China will continue to grocery shop for the technology that will assist it best in bolstering its authoritarian control over its citizens.