How the Hong Kong Crisis Could Reset U.S.-China Relations | Opinion

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) might consider its treatment of Hong Kong to be a purely domestic affair, but the reality is that foreign observers are drawing firm conclusions from Beijing's heavy-handed response to the city's pro-democracy movement. This is certainly true in the United States. It is not yet clear what the final result will be for U.S.-China relations, but it seems highly likely that the CCP might live to regret its resort to the authoritarian playbook.

It used to be imagined that the CCP was serious about preserving Hong Kong's democratic character within the "One Country, Two Systems" framework. After all, that is what Hong Kongers were promised. The Hong Kong Basic Law, on the books in China since 1990, still commits Beijing to the "ultimate aim" of holding elections in Hong Kong by universal suffrage. Pledges to preserve Hong Kongers' freedoms were repeated upon the handover of sovereign authority from London, and have been made time and again by mainland Chinese authorities since 1997. For many Hong Kongers, the promise of continued democratic development has been the only reason to acquiesce in the technical overlordship of the CCP.

China-watchers in the United States know the promises that were made to Hong Kong. But they also know that, in recent years, Beijing has repeatedly undermined the "One Country, Two Systems" bargain. Analysts have watched with dismay as mainland Chinese authorities have halted progress towards universal suffrage, introduced strict vetting procedures for candidates in elections and sought to extend control over criminal justice matters.

To foreign observers, Beijing's recent decision to impose draconian security laws upon Hong Kong—despite palpable anger from ordinary Hong Kongers, and without even the formality of asking the territory's own legislature to take responsibility for passing the measures—is just the latest in a worrying string of attempts to extinguish democratic life in Hong Kong.

In the United States, this gradual but unmistakable extension of autocratic rule over Hong Kong is emboldening Manichaeans who have long argued that the People's Republic is not just undemocratic, but is positively anti-democratic. The United States can make no common cause with such a dangerous and repressive regime, they say. Faced with the cold reality of events in Hong Kong, even the most earnest of America's "doves" are finding it difficult to deny that the CCP views democracy as an intolerable and existential threat.

U.S. leaders are also drawing conclusions from China's apparent readiness to renege on its formal commitments. The official U.S. view is that Beijing is bound by the terms of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, a bilateral agreement between Beijing and London that granted almost identical protections to Hong Kong as found in the Basic Law. If Beijing cannot be trusted to uphold its international legal obligations in Hong Kong, what does this say about its general trustworthiness?

China hawks are claiming vindication. Whereas Beijing once proudly brandished its willingness to abide by international rules in hopes of styling itself as a responsible world power, it now seems as though CCP leaders no longer care about cultivating such an image. The People's Republic is behaving just as its harshest Western critics predicted that it would: as a revisionist power, determined to restore Chinese "greatness" by force if necessary.

To be sure, it is not as if the hawks were short of sticks with which to beat Beijing. Even without the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong, anyone wanting to forge an anti-China consensus in the United States would have been able to point to the CCP's atrocities in Xinjiang, repression in Tibet, militarism in the South China Sea, unfair economic practices, incursions into disputed territories along the Sino-Indian border and much more.

But the crushing of dissent in Hong Kong has the potential to resonate in the United States more than any of these other transgressions. Hong Kongers are the last free people in the People's Republic; their loss of political autonomy symbolizes something tragic about China's trajectory. At some point, there will be no one left in America who believes that the CCP regime is redeemable.

Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing
Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

It is even possible that Beijing's treatment of Hong Kong will reset U.S.-China relations in a similar fashion to the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989. While there is no sign, yet, that Hong Kongers are in imminent danger of a People's Liberation Army crackdown, the slow strangulation of democracy in Hong Kong carries its own special significance. Americans will take notice. They will care.

Thirty one years ago, the U.S. national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, warned his CCP interlocutors that their wanton act of repression would have repercussions inside the American political system. "[President George H.W. Bush] wants to manage events in a way which will assure a healthy relationship over time," he wrote. "That has not been easy. It has not thus far been without cost, and it could, depending on events, become impossible for him."

Scowcroft was right. It took years for U.S.-China relations to recover after Tiananmen, and that was with the benefit of a White House in favor of close bilateral ties and a transnational business community that was willing to lobby hard for economic considerations to take precedence over human rights. Today, China's friends in the U.S. political class are few and far between, the pro-China lobby is muted and human rights activists find themselves the darlings of China hawks on both the Right and the Left.

Whether China's rulers like it or not, Hong Kong's governance is very much a matter of international politics. What happens there is felt globally, including in the United States. Beijing seems to be wagering that the domestic benefits of asserting authority over Hong Kong will be worth the international ramifications that will follow. It remains to be seen, however, whether the CCP has fully anticipated what the long-term effects will be for the U.S.-China relationship. They will be serious—and they will be difficult to undo.

Peter Harris is an assistant professor of political science at Colorado State University.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.