Making the World Safe for Autocracy
Image (slightly cropped) by studiokanu (Flickr)

Making the World Safe for Autocracy

Brian Stewart
Brian Stewart
4 min read

Hong Kong has long ceased to fit the description given it by an envoy of Queen Victoria as a “barren rock.” Since British gunboats secured its jagged shore in the Opium Wars, it has transformed into a vibrant commercial outpost and a premier international metropolis. After nearly two centuries, the city now has new claimants as colonial overlords, who will undoubtedly wreck the special achievements of the crown colony and set new standards of ruination and decline.

Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” form of government autonomy received a lethal blow earlier this year when the annual session of China’s rubber-stamp legislature passed new national security laws that effectively prohibited dissent in the enclave. The draconian national security legislation allowed Beijing to bypass the territory’s own parliament and crack down on any activity it deems seditious. Hong Kong’s liberal culture and independent judiciary quickly began to suffocate under the weight of China’s rapacious interference. The Chinese Communist Party is now looking to crush the remnants of the old order. Beijing has announced that it will impose “comprehensive rule” over Hong Kong, ensuring that the former British colony will be governed as part of China, not as the autonomous entity the sovereignty of which China promised to respect in its 1997 treaty with the UK.

The inexorable logic of Beijing’s behavior has dictated further repression. Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and its pro-democracy lawmakers have already been marked as the next victims. Last week, China’s legislature passed a resolution allowing Hong Kong authorities to remove lawmakers without judicial oversight. Hong Kong authorities swiftly removed four pro-democracy legislators, including Dennis Kwok and Alvin Yeung, two champions of the enclave’s inheritance of judicial independence.

Hong Kong’s remaining pro-democracy lawmakers have responded by resigning en masse. “Sooner or later we would all have been disqualified,” Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai said. This grim appraisal was more or less confirmed by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who said it would henceforth be disqualifying for lawmakers to criticize the new national security law or to plan on “indiscriminately voting down” Beijing’s legislative agenda. Once thought to be hapless, Lam has emerged as a diabolical figure fully complicit in the evisceration of Hong Kong’s liberty.

The Communist Party long ago rigged LegCo, as the legislature is known, so democrats could never gain sway, but now unconditional obedience to Chinese diktat is a requirement for public office. This autocratic assertiveness follows a spate of arrests earlier this month that imprisoned current and former pro-democracy lawmakers on specious charges.

Readers of the Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar will immediately recognize this pattern of “autocratic transformation.” Magyar devised this concept after the Eastern Bloc collapsed in 1989 and the crude language of democracy and despotism failed to capture the complex evolution of some post-Communist countries. The development toward autocracy proceeded in three stages, as Magyar described it: autocratic attempt, autocratic breakthrough, and autocratic consolidation. Hong Kong is caught in a precarious zone between the first and second stages, in which the last embers of freedom will soon be snuffed out. The third stage of Hong Kong’s authoritarian trajectory, with a domineering and unchecked mainland determining its fate, will surely be a fait accompli.

Despite the Trump administration’s oft-touted realignment of US foreign policy from engagement to competition (as spelled out in the 2017 National Security Strategy), the American position has suffered immeasurably under Trump’s fickle and feeble term while China has reaped the whirlwind. The implementation of the new strategy to confront China’s rise has been remarkably shoddy, as one might have suspected from an administration that followed the flawed logic of its “America First” orientation by spurning allies and withdrawing from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

Instead of hewing to a coherent strategy to halt the People’s Republic’s breaches of international law and outrages against human rights, the Trump administration has frittered away precious time and resources in the opening stages of Cold War II. It has failed to compel China to cease its theft of intellectual property, industrial espionage, harassment and exploitation of Western companies, currency manipulation, mercantilist subsidies and tariffs, chronic pollution, and interference in democratic politics. Instead of marshaling partnerships of like-minded nations and building new institutions to contain the world’s largest and strongest one-party state, Trump has heaped praise on Xi’s leadership, rebuffed Chinese dissidents, and alienated China’s anxious neighbors.

Apart from a few token rebukes—the Trump administration’s revocation of Hong Kong’s special trade privileges and the president’s reluctant signing of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, or the UK’s offer of de facto citizenship to three million Hong Kongers—the world has not meaningfully punished China for its destruction of a vibrant democracy. The communist regime’s blatant malfeasance and duplicity throughout the deadly COVID-19 pandemic have likewise not been met with serious consequences. Who is at all surprised?

A Leviathan is the horrifying monster that Job beheld in the Bible, the “king over all the children of pride.” The 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes used the concept as a metaphor for a strong authority that could compel obedience. In an age when the preeminent power upholding the liberal order has gone AWOL, it was only a matter of time before the most ambitious revisionist states sought to fill the void left by American retrenchment and lay claim to the status of Leviathan in their own realms.

One of the legacies of the Trump administration will have been to incite this authoritarian temptation. Whatever was said in the pages of a White Paper, the clarion message issued by the stewards of American power is that the United States has little interest in guaranteeing world order, and even less commitment to ensuring its liberal character.

By methodically severing America from the idea of America, the harm Trump has done to America’s global position—which is a function of its image in the world among friend and foe, and of Americans’ image of themselves—cannot easily be overstated. The language of idealism and principle, already subverted by two Obama terms marked by amoral quietism on the world stage, has vanished from American statecraft. The authoritarian powers have been emboldened, and are apparently on the march.

The people of Hong Kong, who have waved the Stars and Stripes even after the American president refrained from endorsing their movement for democracy and decency, do not deserve the fate they are being dealt. Many other peoples will experience their disappointment in a world no longer moored by the American anchor.

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Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer primarily focused on US foreign and defense policy.