The last time we flew out of Shanghai, China, it was 2015 and we stumbled across a sign hanging from the airport ceiling that seemed like an historical relic even then. It gave instructions — in English — for all travelers on domestic Chinese flights to head one direction and for all international travelers (which included those headed for Hong Kong and Taiwan) to head in the other direction. At the time, we smiled at the admission. The people of both places would appreciate that sign, but Beijing likes to think that both should be brought under its control.
Fast-forward a few years, and it is becoming increasingly clear that Hong Kong is slipping behind the curtain of dominance of mainland China. This week, the U.S. State Department declared that Hong Kong is no longer an autonomous region in China. The declaration by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has real implications for trade with the commercial center, and it will also have repercussions for our relationship with China.
We should make no mistake. This declaration — coming as it does amid a pandemic and after years of increasing trade tensions — will redefine our relationship with China. This declaration will harden views and strip away the remaining patina that Hong Kong was a special region that should enjoy a different approach on trade than China as a whole. It’s also a declaration that will sting a little more for the fact that is based on a factual recognition that China is working to subvert a culture of individual liberty and a desire for democracy in Hong Kong. It’s the sort of leadership we’d asked Washington to provide in standing up for liberty in Hong Kong, so it’s one we hope Americans welcome. It’s a hard truth, but one we can no longer deny: Beijing’s promise of “one country, two systems” has been revealed as false.
We hasten to add that the declaration will likely be felt across the U.S. as Chinese investors rethink direct investment in the United States. Real estate seems benign, but it’s already one place where Chinese investors in U.S. assets have pulled back. Such shifts will continue as the underlying relationship between our two countries continues to change. Our advice is for all of us to recognize the larger picture. We are engaged in a battle of ideas on the world’s stage. And in that struggle, we should wish for Hong Kong’s democracy advocates to prevail and press back against the ideology emanating out from Beijing. In that struggle, we need smart thinking and the smart use for soft power and diplomacy to aid our natural allies and push against our adversaries. The United States’ declaration this week is one such step.