It does, however, show that the people of Hong Kong want both more democracy and to keep the freedoms they have. Democracy advocates won more than 57 percent of the vote, besting the pro-Beijing opposition by more than 15 points. This landslide came on top of a record high turnout: 71 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, up from about 47 percent in the previous election. Hong Kong’s “silent majority” voted to keep their city firmly rooted in the Western political and legal tradition.
Beijing now has to decide if it wants to fight this popular expression, or compromise. Each option carries risks. Fighting it would surely provoke even more strenuous protests than those that have already embroiled Hong Kong for the past six months. It would also probably require the use of force and perhaps the active deployment of Chinese troops to quell dissent. Suppressing the majority by force would almost surely invite global condemnation and have repercussions far beyond the region.
Those repercussions include harming trade relations with the United States. Congress last week passed a bill that would lead to revoking Hong Kong’s special trade status if it became clear Hong Kong was not substantially independent of China. The bill passed both houses with only one dissenting vote, but Trump nonetheless said he might veto the legislation because signing it might harm his ongoing trade negotiations with China. Indeed, China’s foreign minister pledged “resolute revenge” against the United States if Trump signed the measure.
That’s a risk Trump needs to take. It is clear Congress would override his veto, and standing with China’s dictator Xi Jinping in a vain effort to curry favor would hurt Trump among Americans who care about our ideals of freedom and democracy. Sometimes a country such as ours needs to take a stand to protect its highest ideals regardless of consequences. Now is such a time.
That’s what President Ronald Reagan after Poland’s Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski implemented martial law in 1981 to crack down on pro-democracy protests led by Gdansk shipyard worker Lech Walesa and his Solidarity trade union. Reagan imposed economic sanctions on Poland and revoked the country’s most-favored-nation trade status, harming its trade relations with the United States.
This international show of support helped the protesters regroup. Polish unrest continued for years afterward and finally led to Communist rulers allowing some free elections in June 1989. The pro-democracy Solidarity party won every single seat they were allowed to contest, a shocking rebuke to the ruling Communists. Within two months, a Solidarity leader was prime minister of Poland and the road to complete democracy was paved.
China knows this history and won’t walk down that road willingly. But that doesn’t mean some compromise isn’t in its interests. China benefits enormously from Hong Kong’s special trade status with the United States. Losing that would add to the slowdown in growth that already troubles Beijing. Failing to find a compromise solution would also complicate trade talks with Trump, as any agreement would likely require some form of congressional approval to be fully implemented. Unless they are prepared to suffer the economic consequences, it behooves Chinese officials to bend in their attitude toward Hong Kong.
Such an approach requires dialog and flexibility on both sides. That’s what Walesa advises Hong Kong democrats to do. “Remember,” the old freedom fighter told me, “that dialog is the most important those days: Talk to your supporters, but also to your opponents.” It took Walesa eight long years of talking and fighting before he won his struggle. Such prudence, backed firmly by the United States, might result in a free, if not independent, Hong Kong in much less time.