“God has planted in every heart,” President George W. Bush famously said, “the desire to live in freedom,” I’ve never been convinced that’s true. But the desire to live in freedom has been planted in some hearts. In Hong Kong in recent days, we’ve been witnessing a bracing demonstration.
For 156 years, the bustling city on the southern coast of China was a British colony. Then, in July 1997, London handed it over to Beijing. The people of Hong Kong had no say; for them, there would be no right to self-determination.
The Chinese government did make a promise, however: “one country, two systems.” In other words, Hong Kong was to retain its liberties, its legal system, its free market economy, its way of life, for 50 years.
Recently, that agreement has been endangered. A law was proposed to permit Hong Kongers accused of crimes to be extradited to the mainland where the Communist Party controls the courts.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters poured into the streets to make clear that they would not submit easily or meekly.
As the situation grew tense, and increasing violence seemed likely, the city’s chief executive, Carry Lam, suspended the bill which, she claimed, had been her idea — not pressed upon her by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Hong Kong’s freedom fighters have not been mollified. They suspect that Mr. Xi has made only a strategic retreat. Late last week, they were again out in force, close to 2 million, more than a quarter of the city’s population, demanding the bill be scrapped, not just temporarily sidetracked.
In case you didn’t notice: Leaders of what we used to call the Free World have responded anemically to the battle over Hong Kong. I’m afraid they’re following a pattern.
In 2009, there were mass demonstrations in Iran directed against Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, whom the protesters accurately called the “dictator.” They also chanted: “Obama, are you with us or against us?” The American president declined to answer. The statesmen of Europe said little and did less.
Two years later, protests broke out in Syria. They were initially led by opponents of the Assad dynasty who were pro-freedom, not Islamists or jihadists. They, too, received no support from President Obama. The statesmen of Europe again said little and did less.
Before long, Tehran, its proxy, Hezbollah, and Russia intervened militarily to prop up dictator Bashar al-Assad, who has since prevailed thanks to ruthless mass murders and the destructions of entire cities. The “international community” has shrugged its collective shoulders.
Let me provide a bit of context: After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were those — political scientist Francis Fukuyama the most outspoken — who believed that liberal democracy was the destination toward which all nations were evolving.
A corollary to that theory: If trade and commerce could bring prosperity to unfree lands, their rulers would moderate, becoming more eager to improve their nation than to conquer other nations. At the same time, emerging middle classes would demand rights and a share of political power.
Based on such thinking, the United States and Europe began expanding commercial relations with China, culminating in China joining the World Trade Organization in 2001 as a “developing nation” entitled to “special and differential treatment,” a status it enjoys to this day. Tiananmen Square, where, 30 years ago next month, protesters demanding freedom were massacred by the hundreds or perhaps even thousands, faded into the misty past.
This theory about wealth and liberalization was, I suspect, in large measure responsible for President Obama’s policy toward Tehran. If he gave the theocrats respect and cash, plus a path to sustained prosperity, surely “moderates” would prevail over the “hardliners,” and Iran would become a “normal” nation.
That would mean it wouldn’t be a serious problem if Iran’s rulers acquired a nuclear weapons capability — as Mr. Obama’s deal virtually guaranteed they would over the next few years.
Does President Trump also have faith in the transformative power of commerce? While imposing tough sanctions on North Korea — though not yet “maximum pressure” — he’s held out to dictator Kim Jong-un the vision of North Korea as a success story akin to Singapore. I’m dubious that Mr. Kim will be tempted by that carrot unless he’s persuaded that the alternative is a very big stick.
As for China, Mr. Trump deserves credit for recognizing that it regards America as its adversary, and is pursuing a neo-imperialist agenda. He’s taken a harder line than any of his predecessors in response to China’s unfair trade practices and its habit, year after year, of stealing hundreds of billions of dollars of intellectual property — including military defense secrets.
But he — along with Europe’s leaders — have been blase about the incarceration of more than a million Muslim Uighurs in “re-education” camps, the continuing colonization of Tibet, the harvesting of the organs of executed political prisoners and religious minorities such as the Falun Gong.
I’m not arguing that we should send our troops to liberate downtrodden peoples. I am arguing that speaking truth to powerful tyrants is preferable to shutting up for fear of offending them. Failing that, we will seem — and perhaps become — indifferent to the suffering and aspirations of unfree peoples.
There’s also this to consider: Should we not be seeking to limit our commercial relations with tyrannies? What, at this point, is the strategic rationale for America — and other free nations — enriching, empowering and legitimizing adversaries who are also major league oppressors?
• Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.