Streetwise Professor

August 31, 2019

Americans’ Realistic Response to a Fight For Freedom in Hong Kong

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:22 pm

Hong Kong has been convulsed by anti-government protests for weeks. Protestors have numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and are facing increasing violence from Chinese authorities. The atmosphere is heavy with fears of a fierce crackdown by Beijing, along the lines of Tiananmen Square, a little more than 30 years ago.

Hong Kong protestors are literally wrapping themselves in American flags (redolent of the replica of the Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen). Some are even donning MAGA hats and pleading for the US to come to their aid.

But Americans’ responses to all this are decidedly muted, and many appear to be paying little attention to the truly historic events in Hong Kong. This has led many to wonder why. Tyler Cowen hypothesizes that Americans are too obsessed with their own inter-tribal political wars to pay attention:

Sadly, the most likely hypothesis is that Americans and many others around the world simply do not care so much anymore about international struggles for liberty. It is no longer the 18th or 19th century, when one democratic revolution provided the impetus for another, and such struggles were self-consciously viewed in international terms (a tradition that was also adopted by communism). The 1960s, which saw the spread of left-wing movements around the world, embodied that spirit. So did the anti-Communist movements of the 1980s, such as Solidarity, which overcame apparently insuperable odds to help liberate Poland and indeed many other parts of Eastern Europe.
In contrast, I hear no talk today about how the Hong Kong protesters might inspire broader movements for liberty.
Instead, Americans are preoccupied with fighting each other over political correctness, gun violence, Trump and the Democratic candidates for president. To be sure, those issues deserve plenty of attention. But they are soaking up far too much emotional energy, distracting attention from the all-important struggles for liberty around the world.
It’s 2019, and the land of the American Revolution, a country whose presidents gave stirring speeches about liberty and freedom in Berlin during the Cold War, remains in a complacent slumber. It really is time to Make America Great Again — if only we could remember what that means.

With all due respect to Tyler, I think the answer is far different: Americans are far more realistic than he is.

This realism is the bitter fruit of the idealism of the post-Cold War world, and in particular, attempts to advance liberty around the world.

Let’s look at the record. And a dismal record it is.

Start with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which led to a burst of euphoria and a belief that this would cause liberty to spread to the lands behind the Iron Curtain. The result was far more gloomy.

There were a few successes. The Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary. Not coincidentally, the successes and quasi-successes occurred in places that had been part of the Catholic and Protestant west. Outside of that, the states of the FSU and other Warsaw Pact states lapsed back into authoritarianism, usually after a spasm of chaos. (Ukraine went from authoritarianism to chaos to authoritarianism and then to a rather corrupt semi-chaos.)

In particular, the bright hopes for Russia faded rapidly, and after a decade of chaotic kleptocracy that country has settled into nearly two decades of authoritarian kleptocracy. Moreover, Americans (and westerners generally) soon wore out their welcome, in part because of their condescension in dealing with a reeling and demoralized yet proud society, in part because of their complicity in corruption (and yes, I’m looking at you, Harvard), and in part because their advice is firmly associated in Russian minds with the calamity of the 1998 economic collapse. Yes, you can quibble over whether that blame is justified, but that’s irrelevant: it is a reality.

Countries where Color Revolutions occurred (e.g., Georgia) also spurred western and American optimism and support. But hopes were soon dashed as these countries too slipped back into the mire, rather than emerging as beacons of liberty.

I could go on, but you get the point.

Let’s move forward a decade, to Afghanistan and Iraq. In both places, there was another burst of euphoria after brutal regimes were toppled. Remember purple fingers? They were a thing, once, what seems a lifetime ago.

Again, hopes that freedom would bloom were soon dashed, and both countries descended into horrific violence that vast amounts of American treasure and manpower were barely able to subdue. And again, especially in Iraq, the liberators were soon widely hated.

The lesson of Iraq is particularly instructive. The overthrown government was based on a party organization with a cell structure that was able to organize a fierce and bloody resistance against the Americans and their allies. The attitudes of the population meant far less than the determination and bloody-mindedness of a few hard, ruthless men.

Let’s move forward another decade, to the Arab Spring. The best outcome is probably Egypt, which went from an authoritarian government rooted in the military to a militant Muslim Brotherhood government and back to military authoritarianism. In other words, the best was a return to the status quo ante. The road back was not a happy one, and the country would have been better without the post-Spring detour into Islamism.

Elsewhere? Humanitarian catastrophes, like Libya and Syria, that make Game of Thrones and Mad Max look like frolics. Enough said.

Given this litany of gloomy failures, who can blame Americans for extreme reluctance to engage mentally or emotionally with what is transpiring in Hong Kong? They are only being realistic in concluding it is unlikely to end well, and that the US has little power to engineer a happy ending.

And what is the US supposed to do, exactly? The country is already employing myriad non-military instruments of national power in a strategic contest with China. Again, the “trade war” is not a war about trade: trade is a weapon in a far broader contest.

Military means are obviously out of the question. And let’s say that, by some miracle, the Chinese Communist Party collapses, and the US military, government agencies, and NGOs did indeed attempt to help secure the country. How would that work out? Badly, I’m sure.

The country is less culturally intelligible to Americans than Russia, or even the Middle East, and not just because of the language barrier, but because of vastly different worldviews. China is physically immense and has the largest population in the world. Chinese are extraordinarily nationalist, and it is not hyperbole to say that the Han in particular are racial supremacists. Years of CCP propaganda have instilled a deep hostility towards the US in particular, and many (and arguably a large majority of) Chinese blame the west and latterly the US of inflicting centuries of humiliation on China. A collapsed CCP would not disappear: it would almost certainly call on its revolutionary tradition and launch a fierce and bloody resistance. People in Hong Kong may be flying American flags now, but I guarantee that in a post-Communist China, there would be tremendous animosity towards Americans.

When you can’t do anything, the best thing to do is nothing. Some of the greatest fiascos in history have been the result of demands to do something, when nothing constructive could be done.

The American diffidence that Tyler Cowen laments reflects an intuitive grasp of that, where the intuition was formed by bitter experience.

I despise the CCP. It is, without a doubt, the greatest threat to liberty in the world today. It is murderous, and led by thugs. I completely understand the desire of those with at least some comprehension of a different kind of government, and a different way of life, to be rid of it. I am deeply touched by their admiration for American freedom–something that has become increasingly rare, and increasingly besieged, in America itself.

But there ain’t a damn thing I, or even the entire US, can do to make that happen.

Ironically, I guarantee any American involvement in a putative post-CCP China would only contribute to internecine political warfare in the US.

The situation is analogous to that in 1946, when George Kennan wrote the Long Telegram. Confronting (prudently) and containing China is the only realistic policy. After years of delusional policies that mirror imaged China, the Trump administration is finally moving in that direction, and has achieved considerable success in creating a consensus around that policy (the deranged Democratic presidential candidates and those corrupted by Chinese money excepted, both of whom are siding with China at present, because Bad Orange Man and moolah).

But even there we have to be realistic. For even after containment achieved its strategic objective, and the USSR collapsed, it did not result in a new birth of liberty east of the Niemen and the Dneiper. Nor should we expect that to happen on the Yangtze or the Yellow if containment consigns the CCP to the dustbin of history.

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  1. That’s about the size of it.

    “Start with the collapse of the Soviet Union”: Reagan and Bush the Elder seemed to have a grown-up attitude to the late phase USSR and then the ex-USSR.

    Better a slowly-turning-senile Reagan with his sound instincts than those conceited perpetual adolescents Slick Willie, W, and O.

    Comment by dearieme — August 31, 2019 @ 7:24 pm

  2. @dearieme. Agreed. To that list I would add Tony Blair.

    Comment by cpirrong — August 31, 2019 @ 8:19 pm

  3. Well said.

    Makes me think of Hungary in 1956. They asked for help to. But what to do?

    ‘Remember purple fingers?’

    Had a picture of an Iraqi woman holding up her purple fingers to a camera on the wall above my desk, 14 years ago. Here’s hoping that she and her compatriots remember and want to recreate that moment.

    ‘and yes, I’m looking at you, Harvard’

    A story well worth telling, if you have the time Prof – would like to know what you know / have heard.

    Comment by EX-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — September 1, 2019 @ 2:44 am

  4. No offence Professor, but the idea that the CCP is a threat to liberty is hogwash. Your country is powerful enough to mind its business and keep what liberty it has, as are most countries in the world. The biggest threats period, is the poverty much of the third world is stuck in, as well as America’s propensity for self-righteous destruction. It’s all well and good to list a list of recent mishaps, but remember the cost in lives lost.

    Frankly, I can trust the CCP not to export their puerile post-modern decadence, demographics and the structure of their military demand it, I cannot say the same about the USA. More Venezuelans, Mexicans and Central Americans are in need of greater ‘liberty’ than the Hong Konger. Look to them first.

    Comment by NN — September 1, 2019 @ 4:15 am

  5. @Ex-GSRoLB. Here’s the Harvard story. I have no knowledge beyond what was reported publicly in the 90s/00s, but that was pretty bad. This is a good summary.

    Comment by cpirrong — September 1, 2019 @ 7:23 am

  6. From what I have seen, the sectarian fighting in Iraq has finally burned out and the people are enjoying freedom and prosperity that is, well, not bad by Middle Eastern standards anyhow. But y’know, a mendacious leftist narrative will traverse the world before the truth of capitalistic success gets its boots on. And the US persistence there, albeit more by accident than design, depleted the strategic depth of the global Islamic terrorist movement; it took many years of Obama administration dereliction for it to recover. The Iraq war didn’t play out as advertised, but to call it a failure for US interests is quite unfair.

    Given the geography of the situation, it isn’t clear that Hong Kong can be helped any more than Hungry 1956/Poland 1944. Smuggling in some man-portable anti-tank rockets can make the obviously-impending iron-fist move considerably more expensive for the CCP, but can’t change the short-term outcome. The democracies of the First Island Chain, however, are defensible against the despotic threat of the Chinese mainland military. NATO-style alliance-building and military co-ordination is the order of the day, but in addition to that, such an alliance needs to establish uniform standards and policing mechanisms to counter encroaching financial corruption and infiltration. If anything good comes from the fall of Hong Kong, I hope it is a galvanizing event for such an alliance.

    Comment by M. Rad. — September 1, 2019 @ 9:44 am

  7. @NN. Pretty sure the CCP is the greatest threat to liberty in . . . China, the world’s most populated country. They are also a threat to liberty in Taiwan, and as we see, in Hong Kong.

    And you are completely wrong re the CCP not trying to export its model. It is definitely trying to do so. What do you think the entire Belt and Road project is? On economic terms it is a loser, big time. It has a political purpose. Virtually all Chinese operations in Africa are also imperialist in nature.

    And the attempts to extend influence/threaten liberty do not just involve outright conquest. China actively attacks free expression in the West that it views as hostile, ask airlines or luxury brands that dare show a map which lists Taiwan as a separate country. And look at the self-censorship in Hollywood, which avoids any content that might offend the CCP like a plague.

    Poverty in the 3d world? Not a US creation. And the US is not the threat to liberty in Venezuela, Mexico or Central America. Those are home grown problems. To the extent the US has been involved in the domestic affairs of those nations in the past, it is more an effect of their dysfunction, rather than the US causing that dysfunction.

    Interesting that you bring up Venezuela. China has sunk huge sums into that country, and helps prop up Maduro. So yes, China, not the US, is the threat to liberty in Venezuela. Probably the worst example you could mention.

    Comment by cpirrong — September 1, 2019 @ 2:22 pm

  8. Could we finally remember that the legitimate government of China is in Taipei, not in Peking? And that if the US agreed to replace the representative of China in theUN in 1971, it can just as well reverse that decision?

    Maybe it is the time for some high-profile visit to ROC. And to opening if not an embassy, theen at least a consulate there.

    Comment by LL — September 1, 2019 @ 3:00 pm

  9. Thanks Prof.

    And congratulations on having attracted the attention of the Wumao Army!

    Comment by EX-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — September 2, 2019 @ 1:04 am

  10. Not getting involved in Hong Kong is the right thing to do. The CCP is already paranoid that the whole issue is being driven by foreign agents (i.e. U.S. of A.). While we may think it baloney, it comes in the middle of the Trade War, etc., so from their perspective, it has a degree of traction.

    One could say that HK is within China’s “sphere of influence” having been legally reunited in 1997. So any comments are to a degree at least about internal Chinese matters. How much will that work?

    Also, being overt in support may in fact be the trigger for the CCP to order in its considerable police and paramilitary forces it has on standby. What is keeping them at bay is the problem that should China intervene, its status as an alternative to the West takes a nosedive. It has consequences for its desire to get hold of Taiwan and foreign direct and portfolio investment, and so on. At the moment, it seems to me, the wait-and-see element is in charge. The last thing they need is “unhelpful” actions / interventions from the West–especially the U.S. I am sure that many (thoughtful) Americans are fully aware of this and hence the muted comments.

    The whole episode is likely to end badly. Did anyone see the news item that the HK police are being issued with Chinese made uniforms? Would that facilitate the introduction of mainland police to “assist” the local force, which is struggling? Or, given what has happened over the weekend, is this already happening?

    So all-in-all, I’m not at all surprised by the seemingly indifference of commentators about events in H.K.


    Comment by Peter — September 2, 2019 @ 2:25 am

  11. Let’s not forget that in 2047 the “Special Status” ends.

    Comment by Andrew Stanton — September 2, 2019 @ 7:02 am

  12. @Ex-GSRoLB: LOL. Line forms at the rear!

    Comment by cpirrong — September 2, 2019 @ 10:44 am

  13. @Peter–Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. I agree. It will not end well, and US involvement would be a pretext for CCP action.

    Comment by cpirrong — September 2, 2019 @ 10:46 am

  14. Craig,

    I have to slightly contradict your narrative on the success of nation-building and spread of liberties (I presume that’s what you are referring to) in some places and the failures in other. First, I would add the Baltic states to the list of the successful. By and large, they succeeded in establishing free societies and rule of law.

    In contrast, the remaining 12 soviet republics, including Georgia and Ukraine with their dramatic colored revolutions failed. But, from the very beginning, this was the U.S. policy in the region. Otherwise, the U.S. didn’t want the breakup of the Soviet Union and separation of the republics beyond the above-referenced three. I can attest to this fact as a contemporarian and active witness of these events. And it was never made a secret. The U.S. brought pressure on the 12 republics for staying within the frame of an improved USSR — one with a face-lift.

    But let’s disregard my words for it and listen to Jack Matlock, the U.S. Ambassador in USSR between 1987-91. He confirms it. For a reference, please see his recent interview to the Voice Of America (unfortunately it is in Russian). The subject matter is discussed effective 2:30 where Matlock explicitly states that it was a myth that the USA wanted the breakdown of USSR.

    Thus, the 12 republics were left for Russian consumption. Till the end of the 1990s, when Russia was weak, at least some of these republics, traveled quite far in terms of establishing liberties, economic freedoms, and rule of law. With the strengthening of Russia and its policy of reintegrating the “zones of its vital interests,” things went south.

    This was not necessarily a manifestation of American realism or farsightedness. It was simply a failed attempt and miscalculation of using Russia as a proxy for overseeing the U.S. interests in the region — an illusion that lasted till the days of the Beijing Olympics. And, then, came Obama, who gave Russia carte blanche …

    It can be argued that these republics would’ve failed even if the U.S. had given them support. I don’t know. But I am convinced that they had no chance to win against Russia without the American support.

    Comment by MJ — September 2, 2019 @ 1:27 pm

  15. Sorry, forgot to give the link of Metlock’s interview. Here it is:

    Comment by MJ — September 2, 2019 @ 2:19 pm

  16. Notwithstanding the issue at hand in HK, I’m getting real tired of the rest of the planet turning to the US for some moral/political/civil/utopian/liberty intervention. My generation, and the prev generation have spent trillions, and many lives trying to solve this or that outbreak of totalitarian behavior on behalf of some trash ‘republic’, more often of the ‘banana’ genre. Yes – we are by far the most powerful nation on Earth, yes – we have intervened in many places where the US was thinking that the spread of democracy(capitalism, nationalism, etc)was a laudable goal. It’s a bit disingenuous for someone in Screwedupastan, et-al to make ANY statement that the “US should go to ___________ and support the ________ fighting the good fight against ___________”. Hey – we decide what the US should do internationally and whom to support. If you want to fix Screwedupastan, then grab a rifle, put on a helmet, get on a boat and go fix it. Or – write a very, very, very large check to the US Treasury and maybe we’ll listen to you.

    This ‘moral outrage’ stuff concerning how the US is supposed to keep the planet safe from every Pol Pot, Idi Amin or CCP can just take a number, sit over there and wait until your turn is called. We’ll get back to you once we’re done solving world hunger, global warming, plastic waste, and cancer. Until they STFU.

    Comment by doc — September 3, 2019 @ 5:17 pm

  17. Living in the Republic of Georgia for nearly 15 years, I must say your comment about a lapse back into authoritarianism is misguided at best. There are a wide range of political views in the country, and there is little authoritarianism on show. There is, however, a growing dislike of being left to the tender mercies of Russia by the US and EU, despite having sent the highest proportion of soldiers per head of population to places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Comment by Andrew — September 18, 2019 @ 7:42 am

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