Full disclosure: I don’t believe that promoting human rights and democracy abroad should be a high priority for U.S. foreign policymakers. (My most detailed explanation comes in this late-1994 article in FOREIGN POLICY magazine, which is available on-line here and here.) All the same, there’s no doubt in my mind that President Trump would be making a big political and substantive mistake if he, as he’s (very obliquely, to be sure) hinted that he might veto the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 just passed overwhelmingly by both the House and Senate.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m under no illusion that the legislation will do anything in the foreseeable future to promote human rights and democracy in Hong Kong – and you shouldn’t be, either. In fact, there’s every reason to believe that it’s a classic example of political virtue-signaling. For example, even the sponsors of the bill don’t seem to believe that any plausible official American words or deeds can affect the fate either of Hong Kong generally or of the huge numbers of protesters who have been challenging China’s determination to keep eating away at the special freedoms enjoyed by its residents since its hand over by the United Kingdom to Beijing in 1997.
If they did, you’d think that they’d have included in the bill some economic sanctions against the Chinese economy. But not only are such provisions entirely missing. The only measures resembling economic sanctions or potential sanctions are directed against the economy of Hong Kong – in the form of requirements that the various ways in which U.S. policies and other laws that treat Hong Kong differently from China (based on the assumption that this “Special Autonomous Region,” as Beijing calls it) really still is autonomous – remain justified by the facts on the ground in Hong Kong.
The bill does contain some sanctions instructions directed at China – but not at any sectors of its economy. Instead, they’re to be applied against “foreign persons” determined to be “knowingly responsible” for any “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights in Hong Kong.”
To which the only serious response is “So what?” The Hong Kong officials who give the specific orders to the police to fire tear gas or crack some heads or shoot rubber bullets into crowds are nothing more than tools of the dictators in Beijing. Concentrating punishment on them amounts – knowingly – to punishing the little fish and letting the prize catches get away. And P.S. – they’re as easily replaceable and interchangeable as any ordinary functionary.
Unless you can think of many U.S. politicians in either party who would back imposing sanctions on Chinese kingpin Xi Jinping or any of his senior cronies? Fat chance – assuming you could even locate any of their assets vulnerable to America’s reach. After all, how many American elected officials genuinely doubt that China’s top leaders are ultimately responsible for the harsh repression of the Hong Kong protests – or for the extradition law that triggered this uprising?
Nonetheless, the politics alone argue compellingly for presidential signing of the Hong Kong measure. It attracted nearly unanimous support on Capitol Hill, so a veto override is likely. And although the President won’t win much praise for enacting the bill into law, he’ll generate a hail of brickbats for any opposition.
And for what? As I argued in the article cited at the beginning, human rights interests generally should take a back seat in U.S. foreign policy for any number of reasons, but chiefly because other interests are usually more important for America’s security or prosperity (since foreign governments’ human rights practices as are almost completely incapable of undermining these objectives). Moreover, American actions can sometimes backfire, and it’s far from far-fetched to worry that a Trump approval of the Hong Kong bill and more frequent and stronger expressions of official outrage will only further convince China’s dictators (and much of the nationalistic Chinese public) that the unrest in Hong Kong stems from foreign meddling, not legitimate concerns.
Yet U.S.-China relations these days are so bad that it’s difficult to imagine a Trump signature on the Hong Kong legislation significantly worsening them. It’s possible that Beijing could retaliate with still higher tariffs or other curbs on American exports, especially farm products, but China remains much more vulnerable to U.S. economic pressure than vice versa. Nor is the President likely to suffer much politically from such measures during the upcoming election year, since nearly all of his political opponents have spoken out much more emphatically against China’s record in Hong Kong than he has. As for “outside agitator” claims – the Chinese are already making them, including against the United States.
Which leaves us with the one stated presidential reason for considering a veto of the Hong Kong bill – that an obstacle could be created to reaching a trade deal. The problem here is that a trade deal that serves U.S. interests (as opposed to a cosmetic deal that, e.g., results in increased American exports to China in exchange for American tariff reductions with no commitments from Beijing to end its most important predatory trade practices) simply isn’t possible. As I’ve written repeatedly, even a complete Chinese cave-in on paper to every demand the administration has ever made can’t possibly be verified adequately – because the Chinese government is so big and so secretive.
In fact, if there’s any relationship between trade policy and Hong Kong policy, it surely works the other way: More human rights pressure from Mr. Trump would be added to the economic pressure that’s already making Xi’s life hard enough. And whatever throws the Chinese off balance by definition helps the United States. For it would force Beijing to spend more time putting out fires and playing defense generally across the board, and leaves less time for pursuing offensive economic and geopolitical goals that undermine American interests.
As I’ve always seen it, claims that these interests (properly defined, of course) and ideals are always ultimately compatible are among the most fatuous made by practitioners, scholars, and historians of American foreign policy. But especially for a country with America’s range of geopolitical and economic choice (by dint of its high degree of built-in security and economic self-sufficiency, and potential for even more), there’s also no question that the United States can afford to promote its admirable values on a regular basis.
Hong Kongers’ struggle for more freedom and democracy represents one such case, meaning that a Trump-ian failure to sign the Hong Kong bill would call into question not only his support for these ideals, but his pragmatic instincts as well.