For a president with a notoriously ambivalent attitude towards spreading democracy abroad, the protests in Hong Kong give Obama a rare chance to be bold. On Tuesday, an estimated 80,000 demonstrators occupied four central areas around the city, calling for full democratic freedoms, and the removal of the island’s Chief executive Leung Chun-ying. That came after China’s police had used tear gas and batons to try and disperse the crowd over the weekend, which nonetheless remained placidly undispersed.
President Obama must speak out publicly in support of the demonstrators in Hong Kong, and the sooner the better. This is a vital moment for US-China relations. So far, the Administration’s spokespeople have been guardedly supportive of the demonstrations and have urged restraint on the Chinese security forces. But a strong statement from the president would send a clear signal to Hong Kong’s (and, one hopes, China’s) civil society that the US is on their side.
There are all the moral reasons to do so, of course, like W.’s favorite tropes about the American commitment to liberty and human rights, to free elections and a free press. But there is also a pressing strategic reason: that the democrats in Hong Kong and their like on the mainland hold the key to US-China relations in the future.
If that relationship over the long run is going to be harmonious – if it’s going to be fixed, in other words – the United States is going to have to manage the tricky question of Chinese nationalism. By now, we know that China is ever rising, with an expanding military and a GDP that has eclipsed Japan’s and is approaching that of the United States. Newly strong nations are usually proud nations, and the Chinese are no exception.
The Chinese government also knows this, and has every incentive to encourage it. Communism, as a governing ideology, has a notoriously limited appeal, and the ruling party is very much willing to use nationalism as a replacement. This means stoking fights with China’s neighbors. It means whipping up anti-Japanese sentiment over World War II war crimes, and feuding with the Vietnamese over oil platforms in the South China Sea. It means throwing its weight around the region, and playing tag with American military aircraft offshore. And everywhere there is public friction and xenophobia, the Chinese government benefits.
China-watchers usually urge tact on human rights problems to avoid feeding the beast. They argue that confronting internal issues privately with the Chinese authorities is far more effective than scolding them publicly, which raises their hackles against foreign interference. For an ancient country whose 100-year humiliation at the hands of European opium runners is still a real source of anger, it probably does.
Better to say a quiet word in the right ears in Beijing, and try to fix the problem without posturing. Better for die Menschen, as the West German practitioners of Ostpolitik towards the Soviet bloc would say. Better for the people.
But fixing the nationalism problem means replacing the government’s reliance on nationalism with something else – like, for example, real elections. That means helping not just the people, but the civil society on which democratic freedoms rest. When change came in the Warsaw Pact, it came from outside the system, through Poland’s Solidarity and that very non-governmental civil society that Ostpolitik had ignored.
The US needs to support that same civil society in Hong Kong: those students, civic organizations, and average people who are now standing in their city’s square. Those dissidents thus need not just a quiet word with the Chinese authorities, but a public face, and Obama’s famous words.
The US might suffer some blowback, of course. Chinese cooperation is important on issues like North Korea and (less so) Iran, as well as a host of regional and economic concerns. But the past twelve months have seen a variety of negative behavior from the Chinese, from conflicts with Vietnam and the Philippines to its declaration of an Air Defense Declaration Zone over international airspace. Surely, there is now less reason that usual to tread softly.
One of the most common comparisons of today’s China is with Imperial Germany under the Kaiser. Like his nation, China is an industrializing economic success story and rising giant, stronger than its neighbors and natural continental hegemon. Like that Germany, China is also autocratic; not a totalitarian state by any means, and one with some widespread (if poorly delineated) freedoms, but a dictatorship nonetheless.
Like the Second Reich, China’s power deeply frightens its neighbors. The German problem, obviously, eventually was sorted out. Germany is still powerful, and arguably still the European hegemon. But Europe learned to live with that power because after many false starts, Germany became democratic.
There will continue to be nationalistic Chinese in the future, just like there are today nationalistic Germans. But they are German democrats, and thus fairly unthreatening to anyone except debtors. Would that we could say the same of China.
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