I vividly remember standing on the steps outside the Lippo Center in the early evening of June 12, 2019, the warm summer air hanging thick with the lingering taste of tear gas.
A young man standing next to me struck up a conversation. After learning that I was American, he pointed to the police grouping on Cotton Tree Drive, preparing to confront a small group of tragically outnumbered protesters standing at the overpass.
“That’s why we need someone like Trump,” he said. “We need an asshole like Trump,” he continued, “who can deal with these assholes.”
“Obama was a nice guy, he wanted to get along with everyone. Get along with Iran, get along with North Korea, get along with China… but look at this, there is no getting along with these people!”
I glanced out again at the line of police.
“Yeah, let’s just have a summit with Xi Jinping, and he will promise to respect One Country Two Systems. It’s useless. You need someone who takes action, who does something.”
There were many things that I could have said to him at that moment, all on standby in my brain. Since 2016 I had spoken with countless friends in Hong Kong who support Trump, and have for just as long been voicing my reservations and objections. Yet something about the events of that day led me to just listen, an approach to which I held throughout the summer and fall of protests.
In the months that followed, few commentators did the same. On Twitter and in newspaper columns, as the protests expanded, one after another people from all over the world stepped forward to tell protesters in Hong Kong what they must and must not do: remain absolutely non-violent, avoid calls for independence, avoid the bad optics of contact with this or that visiting Republican, and of course build “solidarity” with people in China.
Each of these demands was an attempt to project one’s own pre-formed politics onto the emerging protest movement. In this act, one becomes a lecturer in the literal sense that one lectures people about what they should think and do. And yet anyone who knows what a lecturer actually does will know that this is not how learning works, nor is it how thinking is produced. Such an approach, with its always illusory certainty, misses the opportunity to envision new possibilities opened by these new developments.
As the world has been left, in recent days, with little to discuss other than the American election, I have seen echoes of these lecturing trends in a few op-eds in Mingpao in the past week on the topic of Trumpism in Hong Kong. For example, Kevin Yam, a person with whom I agree 99% of the time, published a piece in Mingpao last Wednesday rebutting pro-democratic support for Trump in Hong Kong that I would like to consider here briefly.
Yam’s article begins with a description of an unnamed political figure with unsavory political opinions whom readers will quickly recognize as Trump. Yam’s main points in the article are that Trump (1) has an inconsistent policy toward China, (2) looks down on human rights and democracy domestically, (3) ignores and weakens US alliances with the democracies of the world.
These points are all in a sense true. Yet in another sense, one can still acknowledge, without drifting into post-truth-ism, that they are not the whole truth.
On the matter of (1) consistency, over the past year, we have seen the passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and the sanctioning of officials in Hong Kong, the sanctioning of officials and organizations involved in human rights abuses in Xinjiang, expanded engagement with and arms sales to Taiwan, the closure of the Houston consulate and the arrest of CCP agents in the United States, as well as enhanced oversight on Chinese state media in the United States (the type of media that follow and spy on me and my friends in Hong Kong).
Faced with these realities, I find it hard to believe that anyone could argue that the Trump administration is inconsistent in China policy: whatever one thinks of the administration, it has achieved a complete rewriting of the status quo in the US-China relationship.
As a liberal, facing these developments, a question that I find myself asking is: why has this only happened under Trump? Why have Democratic administrations, rhetorically dedicated to human rights issues, taken such a reliably capitulationist approach to China’s dictatorship? And how can we avoid such an approach in the future?
On the matter of (2) looking down on human rights and democracy domestically, allow me to be the first to condemn unconditionally Trump’s idiotic obsession with building a wall at the southern border, his administration’s human right abuses against immigrant families, and his nonsense discussions of “fake news,” among countless other offenses.
People like to say that on human rights matters, the best thing that the United States can do is to lead by example. This sounds nice, but is not how the world actually works: just as the advancement of human rights in the United States has unfortunately never secured the advancement of human rights in China, so any deterioration in human rights in the United States does not produce nor justify the deteriorating situation in China or Hong Kong. Attempting to build comparisons and link these issues together will only ever produce endless discussion in a system that promotes self-reflection to the point of losing sight of the Chinese Communist Party’s far more egregious human rights abuses within a system that is always eager to suppress discussion and point its finger elsewhere.
It is very easy to take a 100% principled rhetorical stand on political matters on Twitter or in a newspaper column, insofar as this does not actually involve taking a stand at all. Yet people who are living in indefinite detention in the concentration camps of Xinjiang or facing secret trials under the National Security Law, people who are literally forced to take a stand, are not going to be hurrying to issue purity tests to an administration signing off on sanctions against their oppressors: this is a luxury that they cannot afford. Nor can they afford a return to Washington’s past complacency with Beijing.
The question that thus arises is: as the United States thankfully sheds the more disgraceful legacies of the Trump administration’s domestic policies, how can we avoid a disgraceful return to the type of complacent unconditional engagement with the CCP that sacrifices those suffering under Beijing’s hand to a misplaced fantasy of “opening”?
On the matter of (3) the United States' alliances with the outside world, I also fully agree that Joe Biden would do a far better job than Trump of rebuilding and reinforcing the country’s relations with its democratic allies.
I disagree, however, on whether such alliances can actually achieve anything. A preemptive attempt to build a broad coalition in relation to the China challenge, while certainly pleasant-sounding, contains within itself the all too familiar possibility of endless debates with minimal progress: a situation with which we are all too familiar. Look at the highly varied China policies of the United States' democratic allies: Australia, Japan, India, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Italy. I do not see much synergy here, but rather only endless discussion. In such matters, is it not better to take the lead through new developments to see what works: to lead, in fact, by example?
On this point, we can begin to see discomfiting but also potentially revealing parallels between the Trumpian political phenomenon and the post-2014 independence discussion, or even the protests of last year, which should give us reason to pause.
All represent a group of people collectively tired of “experts” explaining to them all that they supposedly do not understand and telling them what they must do. All buck against the seeming mastery of received wisdom to blaze new yet admittedly still imperfect paths forward, creating real-world social and political laboratories testing new approaches beyond the confines of convention. And all have produced plenty of lecturing about how they are going about it all wrong, only for the condescension of that lecturing to reinforce the appeal of these new directions.
We would all benefit, in my reading, from spending less time telling people how they should think, and instead spend more time learning from and thinking through the new methods and of course questions produced within all of the new developments of recent years. For better or worse, in all cases, there is no going back.
(Kevin Carrico is Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at Monash University.)
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