Hong Kong’s Future: Why Americans Must Care

Michael Anton

October 1, 1997

On July 30, I watched from the deck of a boat in Victoria Harbor as the Union Jack was lowered for the last time in Hong Kong.

It was a solemn moment. It signified not only the end of 156 years of British rule in that territory but also the last meaningful flicker of the great flame that once was the grand old British Empire. These former governors of two-fifths of the world’s land mass, and unchallenged masters of the seas, were retreating back to their small island, almost to retire, it seemed, after many long decades of responsibility and toil.

The hundreds of thousands of Britons in Hong Kong that night, many of whom had helped build that city into the great engine of free enterprise it now is, felt the weight of the moment. They were handing over their Empire’s proudest creation, returning it freely, according to the dictates of a solemn and lawful treaty, to the country from which they had gained it a century and a half before—a country, moreover, in the grip of the harshest surviving tyranny in the world, whose rulers will not blink at slaughtering their own citizens, should it seem necessary to keep them in power. The departing British certainly had reasons to weep, and many of them did.

For me, the moment was solemn for another, ultimately more important reason. It crystallized in my mind a most momentous fact, one that has been true for a long time, but which I don’t think I had ever fully appreciated. And perhaps I have yet to appreciate its full gravity and importance.

It is this: We—that is we Americans, the United States—have taken up the burden the British have laid down. We are now the guardian of freedom in the world, the defender of the peace. We have been for at least fifty years, and barring some unforeseen and unforeseeable catastrophe, or else a series of very imprudent decisions on our part, we will be for at least fifty more years. We didn’t want to be; we didn’t ask to be; but we are, and the fate of the world and its billions of people depends on how we execute our responsibility.

The United States now occupies a position of supremacy in the world that surpasses that of the British at the pinnacle of their success—that surpasses, in fact, the position of any empire the world has ever known. What is more astonishing—and utterly unique—is that we achieved and maintain this position without occupying, governing, or even administrating, aside from a few scattered islands, any inch of territory other than our own homeland.

For almost all of history, empires became supreme by conquering every land they could get their hands on; that is how the Romans mastered so much of the world, as well as the Mongols and the Spanish, to name only the most successful. For centuries, this practice was understood to be the irrevocable law of nations. The urge to master others is written in the human soul; extraordinary men, however rare, will always arise who can translate that impulse into glorious earthly success by leading their nations in wars of conquest against their neighbors and—when those near them have been subdued, or when unknown, unchartered land beckon—beyond. Regrettable perhaps, considering the devastation such conquests wreak, but ultimately inevitable—natural, even.

The British achieved their mastery through a different means. They established trading posts around the world and governed far flung places only reluctantly, when it became clear that commerce—and by extension, the native people—would be better off. This largely commercial empire, governed more in the interest of the governed than any that had preceded it, was the first of its kind in history. I know that another, less favorable, interpretation of the British empire is fashionable these days. This is not the place to refute it. Suffice it to say that the considerable evidence suggests otherwise.

The United States achieved its preeminence via an altogether unprecedented route—without seeking it, indeed actively shunning world influence for many decades, sometimes at a terrible cost. We intervened in a European war in 1917, a war that most Americans wanted no part of. With our allies, we saw that war through to a just conclusion. Our president led the peace negotiations, and the future of Europe seemed bright. But the same Americans at home who had opposed entry into the war in the first place destroyed the possibility of a successful peace. Their representatives in Congress renounced the President’s treaty and pulled our country out of European affairs altogether.

History has shown this to have been a most imprudent decision. For not only were we forced to go back, in doing so we had to suffer a cost more terrible than that of the first war, and infinitely worse than whatever we might have spent in money, toil, and blood had we stayed involved in the first place and enforced the treaties we had helped draft.

Thankfully, the lesson was not lost on those who made the peace after the second war. We stayed. We ensured the peace and freedom of the countries we fought to save. And we stood up to their enemy: our former ally, a country which—make no mistake—would have taken over Western Europe without a moment’s hesitation had there been no one to stop her. That is the way powerful countries operate and always have. The United States and Britain, whatever our faults, are the exceptions, the only ones in history.

Lately I have been reading Churchill’s World War II memoirs for the first time. Among the many profound insights in that marvelous book is this: Churchill observes that it is rare, bordering on impossible, that a country with a multi-party democracy can stick to and enforce a policy, particularly a foreign policy, for more than a decade. The fickleness of the people and politicians, and vicissitudes of fortune, all stack up against it happening.

Yet we managed to do it after World War II. For 50 years we stood up to the Soviets and blocked their ambitions until their empire crumbled. We did it through many transfers of power from party to party and president to president. Why?

This is the decisive point, and here I return to Hong Kong. I was there with a group of concerned Americans on a tour arranged by the Claremont Institute. Most of them knew why we stood up to the Soviets for so long, and at such a great cost, and why we were concerned about the future of Hong Kong. A few did not. But a great many of the other Americans I met simply had no idea. Talking to and arguing with these people was very beneficial to me. It forced me to think through opinions of mine that I had long held by inclination. From the time I was a teenager during Reagan’s first term, I supported the U.S. policy of acting as a bulwark to Soviet expansion. I have always been proud of our country’s record in fighting tyranny around the world—partly, but not only, because of my relatives who fought in those wars. But until that trip to Hong Kong, I had never fully understood why it was good that our country had done these things and why it should continue to do them.

I think that now I know.

For one thing, America is a country founded on an idea, the idea that men are born free, and that they should decide for themselves how they are governed. It is a moral principle—the most crucial moral principle of all—and as citizens of the first country in history founded on that principle, we like countries that agree with us on this, and dislike those that do not. Before arriving in Hong Kong, I made my first trip to a country that does not—China—and it only served to intensify my own dislike for such governments. America, then, supports this principle abroad to the degree that she can for what is essentially a moral reason: because it is right and just to do so.

Another, and less noble (but still important), reason that we flex our muscles in world affairs has to do with trade. America is the richest country the world has ever known. Much of that wealth is the result of free trade. If trade is disturbed, our wealth will decline. To cite just one example, I’m sure at least some readers remember the austerity programs of World War II. Imagine what would have happened had a tyrannical Germany or Russia ruled an unfree Europe for many decades. The vast amount of commerce between us and them would have ended, with great economic losses to both sides.

The ultimate reason why we concern ourselves with the world may seem entirely far-fetched: our own freedom at home hinges on our leadership in the global arena. If we allow tyrannies to take over other countries, human experience tells us that they will eventually turn their gaze our way. Because we have only two borders, both of which are friendly, and also because we are so far away from the world’s trouble spots, most Americans consider an assault on our shores to be unthinkable—ludicrous, really. And it certainly is improbable—but only because we have stood up to and defeated those regimes that had both the inclination and the capability to do it. Had Hitler or Stalin been allowed to solidify their grip in Europe, what would have stopped them from looking longingly across the Atlantic? Scruples? By staying engaged in world affairs, the United States prevents as much as possible such regimes from emerging, and when they do emerge—as they always will—we exert our every eff
ort—and sometimes those efforts are great indeed—to minimize or even eradicate their power.

So it is for these three reasons that we care about the future of Hong Kong, and indeed for all free countries. But let us remember the first reason, for it is the most important. Trade and survival are important, too, but wealth is not virtue, and the fact of survival tells us nothing about whether what has survived deserves to survive.

The United States and its principles deserve to survive because they are just. Hong Kong, too, deserves to survive as it was before the Chinese takeover because it too is just, although it could be more so. But the Chinese are now in the process of making it less just. They are limiting the franchise, effectively rigging elections, and curtailing civil liberties. President Clinton has made a lot of noise about these rollbacks, but so far he has done nothing—which means, ultimately, that the United States has done nothing.

So granted that we should care, what should we do? It is easy, I think, to criticize the President for sounding meaningless warnings, because we know both his record as a promise keeper as well as the awful consequences of appeasement, of vowing to carry out a certain course of action and then not following through. But the President’s statements signal that at least he knows we should care (or at any rate, that his foreign policy advisors know), and this implies that he knows why we should care. But he doesn’t seem to know what to do.

Briefly, I will outline what seem to me to be our options. Ultimately, there are only three ways to influence the behavior of a foreign country: through diplomatic channels, by imposing trade sanctions, or by force. We can dismiss the last immediately in this case. Prudence dictates that force be used only as a last resort, only when absolutely necessary. As much as we care that freedom in Hong Kong be preserved, the costs of a bloody, all-out war with China—which could potentially escalate into a third World War—are prohibitive.

As to diplomatic efforts, these have been tried extensively, we are told (mostly by those who claim to have done the trying), and the results are visible to all. China has not only not altered her behavior toward Hong Kong, she has become more diplomatically belligerent than ever about topics that reach much farther than Hong Kong. It is an open question whether or not our diplomatic efforts have been as stern as they could or should have been—credible voices claim that the current administration has handcuffed our foreign service with an overly conciliatory policy. But one thing, I think, is certain: purely diplomatic efforts are not likely to work with countries like China, countries ruled tyrannically that do not much care what the rest of the world thinks of the way they run things. Whatever has been our diplomatic stance, I doubt it ever had much of a chance.

That leaves us with trade sanctions. This topic is much debated, as anyone who has heard the acronym MFN knows. The issue is simple. Some argue that in response to Peking’s heavy-handed treatment of Hong Kong, to say nothing of that country’s numerous other atrocities, the United States should impose stiff trade sanctions on China. Others argue that free (or relatively free) trade has the effect of liberalizing unfree countries, and thus to shut our doors to China would slow that country’s progress toward freedom. The President and his advisors fall into this camp. More candid defenders of trade with China are willing to admit that this argument is probably not true. In general, it is the tyrant’s willingness to use force against his people, and the strength of his army’s loyalty, that determine how long he will stay in power, not trade—look at Cuba, which has been trading with free Europe for three decades. Rather, these defenders of open trade argue that to restrict trade would u
nnecessarily provoke China, increase tensions in Asia, and perhaps precipitate a conflict, even a war.

Of course, no one wants to see any of these things happen. And most of us want to see the regime now in place in China give way to one that is more humane and more democratic—in short, more just—both for Hong Kong’s future, as well as the future well-being of the Chinese people. So, given that for differing reasons force and diplomacy are not viable options, should we impose trade sanctions? This is an exceedingly difficult question to answer.

Earlier, I repeated a point Churchill makes in his war memoirs. Let me repeat another of his points which is particularly apt to the dilemma we are considering now. In the context of the confusion that reigned in Britain about what should be that country’s response to the growing power of Nazi Germany, Churchill remarks that it is a far simpler thing in politics to understand universal principles than it is to apply them to particular situations. Anyone who has studied political philosophy, as I have, knows this.

For instance, I know that all men are created equal, that they may be justly governed only with their consent, and that therefore slavery is wrong. But I would not have known how to apply these truths to the unique and baffling situation of a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” that was also a nation of slaveholders, and a nation that went to war over the very question of slavery. Thankfully, my country did not need me (or the likes of me) to guide it through that morass. It had great statesmen—and one in particular, the greatest of all—to do it. But such statesmen are rare while, unfortunately, baffling political quagmires are common.

The questions of how best to protect Hong Kong, and how best to deal with China, are such quagmires, although not so important as the one that rent this country apart 137 years ago. Nonetheless the consequences of getting them wrong could be great. A friendly, free people’s future is at stake, as are our own trade interests and national security. Taking too strong a stance might anger the Chinese; too soft a stance might embolden them; either risks war.

I wish that at the end of all this I could confidently proclaim the proper policy, but I cannot, because I do not know. I am inclined against trading with China, because the regime’s brutality is so appalling, because appeasement almost always brings greater troubles than an early confrontation would have, and because I want China to know that we are serious about Hong Kong, and that we are willing to take real action on behalf of Hong Kong. But I do not know if such a trade policy would achieve these ends—which presumably all of us desire—or if it would go horribly awry.

This, however, I do know: we, the United States, must stay involved; we must stay engaged—with the affairs of Hong Kong, China, and Asia, and also the wider world. We must resist the temptation to turn all of our attention homeward, to leave the rest of the world to its own devices. We must do so for those three reasons given above. We must, in short, remain “the world’s policeman”—though not in the derisive sense the isolationists mean, that of actively intervening to stop every crime we see. Rather, in the sense of being what municipal police departments are to their cities: the representative of the law, the imperfect but ever-present keeper of order, and the corrector of those offenders, or offenses, we can reasonably catch and rectify. Because, after all is said and done, it is better for the world that some country, rather than no country, plays this role. We have the power to do so. And, bottom line, who else would you trust?

Michael Anton is a Research Associate at the Claremont Institute.