China’s overreaction to legitimate demands for democracy in Hong Kong, where police are teargasing peaceful protesters asking for universal suffrage, leaves no doubt how the Communist Party sees its future. Regrettably, the Obama administration is saying it will “not take sides.”
Beijing’s Communists are making their position clear — they are not interested in sharing power in a multi-party democracy, in the mainland or in Hong Kong. Market-opening moves over the past decades notwithstanding, the leadership still agrees with Mao Zedong that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
Reports from the city today say that thousands of protesters are defying a government ban on protests. To many, this is starting to look like the buildup to the 1989 protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, which resulted in the death of some three thousand residents of the Chinese capital after the Communist Party brought in troops from the provinces.
For those who’ve never visited, Hong Kong is not a regional backwater, but a sophisticated financial center. Its GDP per capita of $36,796 is one of the highest in the world and four times that of China, which took control of the city in 1997 after a century and a half of British rule.
China promised Hong Kong eventual universal suffrage in the choice of its chief executive —indeed, the promise is codified in Hong Kong’s constitution, the Basic Law . In 2007, the PRC put a time frame on the pledge – 2017. But now with 2017 soon upon it, it has backtracked, recently decreeing that Hong Kong’s 6.8 million people would only be able to choose a leader from candidates essentially approved by Beijing.
U.S. law says that the United States should stand up for the people of Hong Kong. The 1992 U.S.–Hong Kong Policy Act declared that:
Support for democratization is a fundamental principle of United States foreign policy. As such, it naturally applies to United States policy toward Hong Kong.… The human rights of the people of Hong Kong are of great importance to the United States and are directly relevant to United States interests in Hong Kong. A fully successful transition in the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong must safeguard human rights in and of themselves. Human rights also serve as a basis for Hong Kong’s continued economic prosperity.
But the Obama administration is not being exactly Jeffersonian. Our consulate in Hong Kong released a two-paragraph statement repeating that the U.S. supports freedom of the press, of expression and of assembly in Hong Kong, but then came the headline news:
“We do not take sides in the discussion of Hong Kong’s political development, nor do we support any particular individuals or groups involved in it … we encourage all sides to refrain from actions that would further escalate tensions, to exercise restraint and to express views on [Hong Kong’s] political development in a peaceful manner.”
The statement was immediately slammed by the protesters’ Twitter feed, which said “once again, democratic govs are not speaking up for democracy. Here is US consulate’s mealy-mouthed statement.”
It is chagrining that Hong Kong’s people feel abandoned by democracies, including our own. We understand that the Obama administration is beset by global crises, but it was President Obama who boasted in an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes Sunday night that the U.S. always takes the lead in international crises. “That’s how we roll. That’s what makes us Americans,” he said.
In the immediate future, his administration can abandon hopes that China’s government will ever contemplate a transition to a more inclusive form of government if it can’t even countenance a democratic experiment in a city that is supposed to be operating according to a different “system.” Taiwan, too, can abandon hopes that China will ever respect its separate system in exchange for unification . Beijing’s course is clear.