If the Biden administration was aiming to improve relations with China, events in the past few weeks have shown the depth of the chasm that has grown between Washington and Beijing in recent years on the most fundamental matters.
This month, a thousand police officers armed with China’s tough new national security law fanned out across the semiautonomous city of Hong Kong and swept up dozens of opposition legislators, lawyers and activists.
Days later, in one of his last moves as secretary of state, Mike Pompeo declared that China’s policies against Muslims in its Xinjiang region constitute a “genocide” and “crimes against humanity.” Then, only minutes after President Biden took office, China announced sanctions against 28 departing and former Trump administration officials, including Mr. Pompeo.
One last tit for tat — that may have been the intended message from Beijing. Or perhaps it was to signal that control over Hong Kong was nonnegotiable in post-Trump relations with the United States.
In any case, the incoming administration did not flinch. China’s effort to “play to partisan divides” won’t work, said a spokeswoman for the Biden National Security Council. Antony Blinken, the nominee for secretary of state, tweeted after the Hong Kong arrests that the Biden administration “will stand with the people of Hong Kong and against Beijing’s crackdown on democracy.”
The Biden administration’s China policy has yet to be defined. But as far as Hong Kong is concerned, there appears to be continuity between the two presidential administrations. The little enclave has bravely resisted China’s efforts to curtail its Western traditions of free speech, fair courts and a dollop of democracy through mass protests and elections. Yet it has no real defenses against the Goliath on the mainland other than the opinion and pressures of the world’s democracies — the United States first among them.
Western support of the territory’s freedoms is important also as a signal to other mature and fledgling authoritarians. China’s extraordinary justification for rounding up more than 50 opposition figures was that many of them had participated in an unofficial “primary” vote to select candidates for the 70-seat Legislative Council. Over 600,000 people out of a population of 7.5 million voted, which was enough for Carrie Lam, the Beijing-picked chief executive of Hong Kong, to denounce the process even before the vote as “subversive.”
While the council is designed so that pro-Beijing lawmakers hold a majority, a decisive victory by the opposition could have enabled it to block the budget. Do that twice, and Ms. Lam would have had to step down. Ms. Lam, in any case, postponed the council elections for a year, using the pandemic as a pretext.
The more than 50 democracy activists who were arrested have not been charged, and most have been released on bail. But the roundup signaled how far Beijing and its backers in Hong Kong are prepared to go with the draconian national security law imposed on the territory last June to geld what remains of its independence and freedoms.
For President Xi Jinping and his Communist lieutenants, their concerns extend far beyond Hong Kong. Mr. Xi has made clear in his pronouncements and actions that he regards human rights and democratic values as weapons of an aggressive West, and when he talks of a “community of shared future” or of “harmony without uniformity,” he means that authoritarian systems like his are as legitimate as Western liberal democracy.
Hong Kong is thus intolerable to the Chinese Communists not only as a gadfly, but as a standing rebuttal to Mr. Xi’s illiberal ideology. The stubborn and courageous insistence of the people of Hong Kong on defending the rights they were promised by Beijing under the slogan of “one country, two systems” has repeatedly exposed China’s true intentions.
The struggle is not over. Though the Hong Kong opposition has been forced to retreat before the new security law and the pandemic, the territory’s courts have demonstrated that they are not fully cowed.
Shaping an American China policy that balances recognition of China’s economic and military prowess against the obligation of supporting the rights of Hong Kongers — as well as the rights of the people of Macao, Xinjiang and Tibet, other semiautonomous regions that have resisted Beijing’s heavy hand, or Taiwan, whose democracy poses another standing rebuke to the mainland — is one of the most daunting foreign policy challenges facing the new administration.
Whatever signal China may have been trying to send by its crackdown on dissenters, the Biden administration should continue to stand with the people of Hong Kong.