Hong Kong: A Free City, under a Shadow

Anti-extradition bill protesters march to the West Kowloon Express Rail Link Station in Hong Kong, China, July 7, 2019. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Will Trump stand by while China devours this near miraculous city?

Hong Kong — Most Americans do not know the name Carrie Lam, chief executive of the “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China,” but her constituents here in this vivacious, sprawling city know the name of the American chief executive, and they pay close attention to his words — closer attention than he does, possibly.

Hong Kong boasts the freest economy in the world, with a Heritage Economic Freedom score of 90.2 and a first-place ranking for 24 years running. (The United States is foundering down in twelfth place with a score of 76.8.) Its 7.4 million residents conduct their daily affairs with a fascinating combination of Chinese prolificity and Swiss efficiency. In real (inflation-adjusted) dollars, its economy today is 16 times what it was 40 years ago, having grown at more than twice the U.S. rate in those years. It has low taxes and light regulation by global standards, but its freewheeling capitalism coincides with an urban public life that is remarkably orderly by comparison with American cities. (Chicago has one-third Hong Kong’s population and more than 30 times as many murders.) Hong Kong is, in short, a miracle of human ingenuity.

It is also, formally, a political subdivision of the so-called People’s Republic of China, a sprawling and dynamic nation under the thumb of a single-party police state that engages in repression that combines the worst of Orwell and Kafka with theatrical cruelty that would have left de Sade himself nauseated. Its people recently took to the streets to protest a measure supported by Lam — and very much desired by Beijing — that would have subjected Hong Kong residents to extradition to the Chinese mainland and trial under Communist law for a variety of possible offenses. The creaky caudillos in Beijing are masters at trumping up charges, and the law would have deepened the political shadow already darkening the atmosphere in Hong Kong.

Writing in National Review, Senator Pat Toomey, the admirable Pennsylvania conservative, directed his remarks on Hong Kong directly at President Donald Trump:

Mr. President, we recently had the blessing of being able to celebrate our own Independence Day — when Americans reflect on our own struggle against tyranny, against an unjust government, and our successful effort to throw that off and establish this, the world’s greatest, most vibrant, and freest democratic society.

In many ways, the Hongkongers are fighting for some of the very same values as our founding fathers did during the American Revolution. I think it’s important that we here in the United States not turn a blind eye to the struggle for freedom that’s happening outside of our borders. I think it’s important that Americans continue to stand in support of the voices in Hong Kong that are calling for freedom, for democracy, respect for basic human rights.

The president, unhappily, sees things differently.

Just as Senator Toomey was delivering his remarks, the Financial Times reported that President Trump had offered his counterpart in Beijing, Xi Jinping, an accommodation on Hong Kong in exchange for reviving stalled trade talks between the two countries. President Trump, who not long ago boasted that “trade wars are good, and easy to win,” has found reality somewhat less tractable than he had imagined it to be. And so he offered to go soft on Hong Kong. “The US president made the commitment when the two leaders met at the G-20 summit in Osaka,” the Financial Times reports. “Following the Trump-Xi meeting, the state department told Kurt Tong, the departing U.S. consul general in Hong Kong, to remove several critical comments about China from his final speech in the Asian financial hub.” Tong apparently had intended to be frank on the matter of Beijing’s sustained assault on Hong Kong’s political freedom, but the Trump administration desires no such frankness.

President Trump frequently brags about being a tough guy, but in reality he is positively abject in the presence of genuine hard men and pathologically solicitous of thugs minor (Kim Jong-un) middling (Vladimir Putin), and major (Xi Jinping). The president misunderstands what he believes to be shrewdness. He is a “Little American” — like the “Little Englanders” of the 19th century, he sees the country’s commitments around the world as a burden and a drain, believing that America’s economic interests and its moral interests are at odds with one another. This is an error.

It also produces some odd politics. While he was batting his eyes at Xi Jinping, President Trump was throwing a hissy fit in the direction of the British ambassador, Kim Darroch, who had described the Trump administration as “inept and insecure” and “dysfunctional” in private diplomatic correspondence leaked to the Mail on Sunday. As Janan Ganesh puts it, Darroch’s “analysis is technical, not normative.” But the wounded Trump took to Twitter to air his grievances, and the ambassador has announced that he will resign.

Darroch is a lifelong career diplomat; the current U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James owns the New York Jets. In June, the Partnership for Public Service reported that out of 202 State Department positions requiring Senate confirmation, 61 were vacant. “Dysfunctional” might reasonably cover that.

Hong Kong is being slowly swallowed with barely a peep of protest from the United States.

VIEW GALLERY: Hong Kong Protests

We are supposed to believe that this is “deal-making.” But it isn’t only the moral high ground the Trump administration is ceding; it also has pulled back on, among other things, sanctions on Huawei, the Chinese technology firm that the administration has identified as a threat to U.S. national security. If there is a deal in the making, it is fair to ask what we are getting for it.

For Beijing, l’appétit vient en mangeant, and while nearby Macao may remind the visitor a little of Las Vegas, what happens in Hong Kong does not stay in Hong Kong.

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