American policymakers dealing with China’s hostile takeover of Hong Kong face a dilemma. Do too little, and the regime in Beijing gets away with erasing the former British territory’s autonomy with impunity. But restricting Hong Kong’s privileged status in U.S. relations — as the United States is now doing — will hurt the people of Hong Kong and indeed give China no reason not to proceed with its complete absorption. Neither scenario will change Chinese behavior, nor help the people of Hong Kong.
This is not the first time policymakers have faced this same dilemma. The Soviet Union’s takeover of governments in Central Europe — not to mention its illegal absorption of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — presented the same challenge. Western policymakers knew that the takeover of Central European governments was morally unacceptable; yet so would be the consequences of aggressive resistance to the Soviet takeover, when the Kremlin controlled the forces and facts on the ground.
But that did not stop the West from pursuing a strategic policy which, decades later, resulted in the renewed independence of states in Central and Eastern Europe. That playbook is worth revisiting today as we deal with China’s absorption of Hong Kong. The steps may seem small if one is seeking immediate results. But the Chinese Communist Party is playing the long game, and so should we.
First, and not to be underestimated, is the legal framework. The United States like most western governments never recognized the Soviet incorporation of the Baltic States, just as the outside world has mostly not recognized Russia’s incorporation of Crimea. And even though the United States did recognize the Kremlin-imposed governments in Central Europe, it held the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact states accountable for respecting international commitments they had made with respect to human rights and democratic principles.
In today’s environment, the United Kingdom in the first instance, but also the United States and other western countries, need to uphold firm legal objections to China’s abrupt takeover of Hong Kong, in violation of all of the mainland regime’s former commitments. They should pursue these challenges vigorously.
Second is information. Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and the BBC language services all worked to ensure that the people of the countries behind the Iron Curtain had access to real information about their countries and the world, in real-time. That should be the goal today as well. It is far more complicated today, as most information travels through the internet, which the Chinese Communist Party seeks to control. But the commitment to providing unbiased, genuine news and information to populations “behind the curtain” should be no less strong.
Third is the appeal to global standards. The Helsinki Accords secured Soviet commitment to higher ideals, even though no signatories could claim to be in full implementation of those ideals. Signatories could agree on the goals, but disagree on why nations are not meeting those goals. Even though intergovernmental negotiations gridlock over this sort of thing, the appeal to standards empowers those in civil societies and the broader populations to hold their own leaders accountable. The United States and the West should creatively use steps to hold China accountable to already accepted international standards.
Fourth is direct support to civil society. Financial support can actually sink the causes and individuals the West seeks to help, but the identification and celebration of individual cases inspire local civil society leaders and raises the bar against crackdowns. We need to identify heroes in the struggle for Hong Kong’s autonomy, and ensure that their names are as familiar in the West, as Václav Havel and Lech Wałęsa were in the 1980s.
Finally, there is the strategic pushback against China. The thing that motivates most policy discussions in Washington today may in fact be the last consideration. There does indeed need to be pushback against China’s regional aggression and its efforts to dominate 5G technology and global data collection. That need, however, is all about the strategic interests of the West. It does not substitute for a freedom-driven policy to support Hong Kong, which may do more to bring about change in China than the strategic pushback can ever accomplish.
A former U.S. Ambassador to NATO and U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, Kurt Volker is a Distinguished Fellow at CEPA and Senior International Advisor at BGR Group.