The burgeoning pro-democracy protests on the streets of Hong Kong present a unique do-over opportunity for Beijing and a much-needed wake-up call for Washington.
If it acts wisely and generously in Hong Kong, China’s Communist Party has within its grasp the possibility to undo in part a tragic and historic mistake, a chance dictatorships don’t often get. It can expunge part of the shame of June 4, 1989, when the People’s Liberation Army turned its tanks and guns on the Chinese people at Tiananmen Square and cities across China. That was the day Deng Xiaoping, China’s Paramount Leader and the architect of sweeping economic reforms, lost his nerve, decided that the people he freed to “get rich” could not be trusted with parallel political freedom, and gave the fatal order. The mere possibility that the Communist Party might one day have to share power with a competitive political force within China panicked Deng and his colleagues and they brutally cast the hopes of the population onto the trash heap of history. In Hong Kong, Beijing has the opportunity to get it right at last.
Four* decades earlier in Taiwan, the CCP’s sister dictatorship, the Kuomintang, had similarly acted to crush a popular uprising. February 28, 1947, turned out to be the low point in the KMT’s harsh reign, and after Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek passed from the scene, his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, put Taiwan on a path to democratic governance. The once authoritarian political party redeemed itself and ushered in a system under which it could be, and was, voted out of power in favor of its political opposition, and just as peacefully returned to power.
The Hong Kong confrontation enables Beijing to demonstrate the same political self-confidence and maturity its Taiwanese compatriots have shown. The challenge to Xi Jinping is not nearly as difficult as that faced by Chiang on Taiwan or Deng in 1989, because the people of Hong Kong are not seeking an upheaval of the entire system or even a separation from the mainland. They want only to retain what they already have and to gain what Beijing had promised them prior to Britain’s hand-over of Hong Kong: “one country, two systems,” an island of Western democracy in a sea of Chinese Communism. The cohabitation of such fundamentally different forms of government is akin to allowing a foreign organism within the body politic, but that was the commitment Beijing made to the people of Hong Kong and the world in the 1980s. It made similar liberalization promises for all of China as a condition of hosting the 2008 Olympics. Getting it right in Hong Kong could be a first step in enabling progress on a broader reform front.
Unsurprisingly, that’s precisely what Communist Party hardliners fear: that a measure of political autonomy for Hong Kong would set an example for other regions of China who already aspire to the same freedoms. But, as Taipei did in the 1980s and 1990s, Beijing can control and phase in that liberalization process. So China’s leaders face a moment of truth: open the door to political competition in Hong Kong and what it may portend for the marketplace of ideas in the rest of China, or nakedly break a public written commitment to the people of Hong Kong, use massive force to quell the protests, and squander what is left of the CCP’s waning moral legitimacy.
Then there is the Taiwan factor that must weigh into Beijing’s calculation. Chinese leaders have long cited Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” to entice Taiwan’s unification with China. Memories of the Tiananmen massacre had already implanted deep Taiwanese skepticism regarding Chinese tolerance for political dissent. Recent crackdowns on press freedoms in Hong Kong have only worsened Taiwan’s view of CCP magnanimity. This past summer’s Sunflower Movement showed widespread Taiwanese hostility even to growing economic entanglement with China, let alone political union. Short of a dramatic reversal of what China is presently doing in the Special Administrative Region, the prospect of Taiwan ever willingly acceding to Chinese Communist rule is at absolute zero.
That state of Taiwan’s public opinion is where American interests become seriously engaged because of the workings of two laws, one in China, the other in the United States. Beijing’s 2005 “anti-secession law” threatens the use of force against Taiwan not only if it declares formal independence from China, but also if it simply takes too long to accept “peaceful” unification, virtually inconceivable after Beijing’s Hong Kong fiasco. Xi Jinping recently proclaimed that resolution of the Taiwan question cannot be deferred to another generation. With only two years left in the term of KMT President Ma Ying-jeou and the possibility that the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party could return to power after the 2016 election, Beijing may decide it is time to act against Taiwan.
If China applies force or coercion against Taiwan, it will sorely test the Taiwan Relations Act, which links Taiwan’s fate, and how it is resolved, with America’s vital interest in regional peace and security. The TRA obligates Washington to come to Taiwan’s aid, at least in the form of providing more significant weapons for its self-defense. Under its doctrine of strategic ambiguity, the U.S. has never said whether it would go further and directly intervene to defend Taiwan. (For one brief moment in April 2001, strategic clarity did emerge when President George W. Bush said the U.S. would do “whatever it took,” but that was quickly explained away and walked back by the foreign policy establishment.) If Washington were to dispel once and for all the ambiguity regarding its security commitment to Taiwan, it could actually strengthen the moderates in China’s leadership. That, in turn, could facilitate a rational, liberalizing Chinese approach to Hong Kong and make it more likely Beijing will follow the Taiwan rather than the Tiananmen model in dealing with political dissent.
So far, Washington has mostly been painfully circumspect about full-throated support for the protestors in Hong Kong, notwithstanding a petition with almost 200,000 signatures pleading for the Obama administration’s support. Rather than calling on Beijing to honor its promise to allow Hong Kongers to choose their own local leaders, the White House has said only that America respects their rights of free assembly and expression. If that U.S. stance of relative aloofness continues, it will place American leaders on the wrong side of history, where they were on Iran and Syria.
Yet, when President Barack Obama announced the U.S. “pivot to Asia” before the Australian parliament in 2011, he linked America’s strategic interests to the success of democracy in the region and pledged “every element of American power” to achieving “security, prosperity, and dignity for all.” It is not likely that Beijing will curb its aggression in the South China Sea if Washington reacts passively to this latest blow to Hong Kong.
Joseph A. Bosco is a member of the U.S.-China task force at the Center for the National Interest and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously served as China country desk officer in the office of the secretary of Defense from 2005-2006.
*Corrected from “two”.