When it comes to America’s ties with China, President Donald Trump tends to focus on the economic aspects of the relationship. Trade is what the president likes to talk about and what he likes to tweet about. His administration’s policy approach, however, is more holistic. The National Security Strategy (NSS), released in late 2017, described China (and Russia) as posing a “challenge to American power, influence, and interests” and “attempting to erode American security and prosperity.” As such, the NSS lays out a broad approach to Asia with political, economic, and military pillars, some of which are further elucidated in the National Defense Strategy and the Defense Department’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report.” The Trump Administration has been clear-eyed in recognizing that it is in a long-term strategic competition with China and that the United States must utilize various tools of national power to compete effectively. Recent events, however, remind that the Administration has been ignoring a key aspect of the bilateral competition and, as a result, a key American advantage in waging it: the competition of values.
Hong Kong’s Role
Hong Kong has been in political turmoil for much of the summer. The contours of the city’s upheaval are relatively straightforward at this point. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, attempted to rush through the Legislative Council a bill that would have allowed extradition from Hong Kong to China. Hong Kong residents, reasonably concerned that the bill would permit the long arm of Chinese law enforcement to reach into the city with potentially disastrous results for its freedoms, protested. Lam’s refusal or inability to find a political solution to a political problem combined with heavy-handed police tactics have led protesters to escalate their demands from simply withdrawing the bill to genuine universal suffrage and direct elections of the chief executive. Chinese authorities, meanwhile, are making veiled and not-so-veiled threats to deploy the People’s Liberation Army into Hong Kong’s streets. After weeks of demonstrations, tensions run high and a peaceful resolution seems ever more distant.
Demonstrators have taken to the streets in response to local developments. It is a homegrown movement—a movement that is not, contrary to Chinese propaganda, directed or incited by foreign agitators, American or otherwise. But nor is that movement isolated from the outside world. Rather, many marchers are inspired by, and identify with, western cultural touchstones and liberal political traditions.
One of the movement’s unofficial anthems has been “Do You Hear the People Sing?” From the musical Les Misérables, originally written in French and adapted from Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name, the song is a cry for freedom from tyranny. Union Jacks are ubiquitous, their bearers perhaps not only asserting that British colonial rule of the past would be preferable to what Beijing has in store for the future, but also staking a claim as spiritual descendants of John Stuart Mill and his liberal fellow travelers. The occasional marcher has even been seen waving the American flag, undoubtedly seeking attention from the United States, but also waving the flag of the world’s oldest democracy and its foremost advocate of universal values.
President Trump may have done Xi Jinping a favor by referring to the protests as “riots,” but many others in the United States are acting more constructively. Legislators across the political spectrum, from Marco Rubio to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have made statements supportive of the movement. On August 2, the co-chairs of Congress’s Human Rights Commission sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross urging them to “suspend future sales of munitions and crowd and riot control equipment to the Hong Kong Police Force and publicly announce that the US will not contribute to the internal repression of peaceful protest in Hong Kong.” A bipartisan piece of legislation introduced in June would, if it becomes law, require the secretary of state to annually recertify that Hong Kong exercises sufficient autonomy from China for it to receive special trade and economic privileges granted by the US-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992. In an August 6 statement, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi offered her concurrence with the letter and announced that, after the August recess, “Congress will begin our work to advance the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, and fight to preserve democratic freedoms and the rule of law in Hong Kong.”
These lawmakers understand what the Trump Administration has thus far failed to sufficiently recognize: the competition between the United States and China is not just a contest between different economic systems, a race for global influence, or even a competition over the fate of global order. It is—perhaps fundamentally—a competition between freedom and the forces arrayed against it, the latter embodied by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Hong Kong is where these forces are most visibly clashing at the moment, but that clash should not be limited to this unique semi-autonomous city. Within the mainland of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the forces of tyranny largely go unchallenged, as is clear from the consequence-free (for Beijing) cultural genocide in Xinjiang, the appalling treatment of activists of all stripes, and the emerging panopticon state. Beijing wages this battle outside China’s borders, too—notably when it seeks to shut down speech that it does not like in other countries—though the offensive is not often recognized for what it is: an extraterritorial assault on the liberties that citizens in free countries hold dear.
That the United States has yet to wholeheartedly engage in this contest is unfortunate, because its advantage over China is clear. To the extent that narrative-building matters in the realm of international politics, it is fairly easy to make the case that China is not on the side of the angels. Tactically speaking, if Chinese diplomats are tied up defending Beijing’s indefensible human rights record, they have less bandwidth for countering American diplomatic initiatives or isolating Taiwan on the world stage. Strategically, effectively engaging in this contest of values can create marginally more space within the People’s Republic for a healthy civil society and civil activism, making it more likely that the Chinese people themselves can, over time, bring about the changes they so richly deserve—just as Hong Kongers are attempting to do today.
Unlike its counterpart in Washington, DC, the Tsai Ing-wen government has an unmistakable appreciation for the ideological aspect of the competition. Over the last two months, President Tsai and Foreign Minister Joseph Wu have offered frequent rhetorical support for the protesters in Hong Kong, at risk of incurring Beijing’s ire. In the movement’s opening days, President Tsai tweeted, “We stand with all freedom-loving people of #HongKong. In their faces, we see the longing for freedom, & are reminded that #Taiwan’s hard-earned democracy must be guarded & renewed for every generation.”
Minister Wu has offered similar comments, sometimes imbued with his trademark sense of humor. “As #HongKong’s civil servants mass on the streets,” he tweeted recently, “Beijing needs to look long & hard in the mirror & ask one question. Other than the @hkpoliceforce, triads & PLA, who else stands with you? Time for an exit strategy: genuine democracy!”
President Tsai’s most pointed comments may have come in remarks she delivered at Columbia University during her visit to New York, in which she asserted that “freedom around the world is under threat like never before” and described the competition between freedom and tyranny in stark terms:
We are seeing this threat in action right now in Hong Kong. Faced with no channel to make their voices heard, young people are taking to the streets to fight for their democratic freedoms. And the people of Taiwan stand with them. Hong Kong’s experience under “one country, two systems” has shown the world once and for all that authoritarianism and democracy cannot coexist. Given the opportunity, authoritarianism will smother even the faintest flicker of democracy. The process may be gradual, so subtle that most don’t even feel it.
It turns out that Taipei has a crucial role to play in clarifying for others the existence and contours of this competition between, as Tsai puts it, authoritarianism and democracy. Taiwan faces a truly existential threat to its democracy (a threat that is frankly foreign to much of the free world) and is thus best positioned—along with democrats in Hong Kong—to issue a clarion call to rally democracies to the cause of freedom. To be sure, it is in Taiwan’s parochial self-interest to pound on this drum as it seeks to forestall the People’s Republic from swallowing the island whole. But should freedom-loving countries, first and foremost the United States, heed Taiwan’s call, the benefits will be widespread.
China and its ilk seek to create a world that is safe for authoritarians. By definition, such a world will see freedoms limited inside and outside China’s borders. A world that is safe for democracies, by contrast, is not one in which the CCP can flourish, but it is one in which the people of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan can more easily live in harmony, freely exercising their natural rights and determining their own destinies.
The main point: While the Trump Administration’s National Security Strategy lays out a holistic strategy for competition with China, President Trump has been primarily focused on the economic aspects. Taiwan sees clearly what events in Hong Kong should make plain: the US-China competition is a competition between freedom and tyranny.