Hong Kong’s freedoms are vanishing before our eyes. The West, not knowing how to respond to Beijing’s de facto annexation of Hong Kong, wonders: isn’t Hong Kong part of China, and isn’t this domestic matter none of our business? This Western passivity is a grave mistake because Chinese aggression in Hong Kong reveals the Beijing regime’s long-term strategy.

The treaty signed between Great Britain and Beijing in 1984 provided for a “restitution” of Hong Kong and the contiguous New Territories, on condition that the former colony would retain its political and judicial independence as an electoral democracy and capitalist system until 2045. The British imagined that China would, by then, have surely left Communism behind. They were doubly wrong.

The Beijing government has little respect for international treaties, which should be understood in the light of the quasi-colonization of China by European powers and Japan throughout the nineteenth century. Military incursions by Westerners were concluded by concessionary treaties with the emperor, who was forced to sign them. Since the fall of China’s last imperial dynasty in 1911, the Chinese have considered these treaties “unequal”—including the 1842 treaty that ceded Hong Kong to Great Britain. All treaties between China and the West are tainted by this suspicion of inequality, including the treaty that restored Hong Kong to China, surely perceived by Beijing more as a matter of diplomatic and historical payback than as a juridical commitment.

The recent arrest of democratically elected delegates to the Hong Kong parliament, Beijing’s direct appointment of Hong Kong’s chief executive, the imposition of de facto martial law, Beijing’s control of the media, the incarceration of democratic student leaders, the arrest and kidnapping of Hong Kong intellectuals—all these actions are bringing Hong Kong under direct control of the regime. All represent violations of the 1984 treaty with Britain over the future status of the territory, but Beijing has not found it necessary to justify its cavalier attitude toward international law. Meantime, the United Nations, the British, the United States, and the European Union look away.

We would do well to understand that what is happening in Hong Kong—proof of Beijing’s disdain for international law—is a preview of what will happen elsewhere. China’s leaders have made it plain that they consider international law, in fact all current international institutions, illegitimate. The current international order, with its juridical principles and its institutions, is only the reflection of a colonial past. Beijing wishes to reconstruct the world, beginning with Hong Kong, the coastal islands of the Sea of China, Taiwan—and in the end, the whole Pacific area. China, in Beijing’s eyes, would then achieve complete equality with the United States. Western lassitude colludes with the Chinese regime in this ambition.

The West’s first error is thus to ignore the fact that the illegal annexation of Hong Kong is not an isolated event, but the clear sign of a global strategy. Compounding this first error is a general ignorance of the meaning of the term “Chinese.” This word designates both a civilization and a country, but these two things are not the same. China as a civilization goes back at least 2,000 years, with its essential characteristics of the Confucian religion and a common written language based on ideograms. This is an extreme simplification, of course, because, depending on regions and social classes, Confucianism is mixed with Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. In practice, China combines all these beliefs and forms of worship in a synthesis that might be called the Chinese Religion.

China includes hundreds of languages and dialects, and what we call Chinese or Mandarin is the language only of the northern part of China. For 2,000 years, the emperors—and since 1949, the Communist Party—have attempted with varying success to unify all these culturally Chinese people under a single political authority. The Communist regime has gone the furthest in this attempted unification by imposing a single national language—the Mandarin of the bureaucrats—except in the resilient and wealthy province of Canton. All other peripheral languages and cultures, including Tibetan, Uighur, and Mongol, are reduced to the status of folklore. To reinforce this myth of Chinese political unity, Communist leaders have adopted and imposed another false idea, dating from the late nineteenth century—that of the homogeneity of the Chinese “race,” or the Han. This concept originated as a political alibi in nineteenth-century European ethnographic jargon, used to justify the unity of China and its domination of non-Han minorities such as Tibetans and Mongols.

This fictitious Chinese unity is further unsettled by the existence of Chinese populations overseas, including tens of millions who have emigrated to the West, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and elsewhere. Hong Kong’s hybrid identity is an essential reason for Beijing’s determination to annex it, for Hong Kongers are culturally Chinese but lack allegiance to Beijing. Hong Kong’s people are all emigrants: either they or their parents left China in order to build a new society elsewhere—one freer and more prosperous. A citizen of Hong Kong is, socially, closer to a resident of New York’s Chinatown, or to someone from Singapore or Taiwan, than to a Chinese resident of Beijing or Shanghai. It is this distinctiveness of Hong Kong’s people that makes Beijing’s totalitarian regime unbearable for them, and their liberty intolerable to Beijing.

China is taking steps toward global dominance in multiple domains. In the past, the West has not judged well in tolerating annexations based on so-called ethnic legitimacy, whether it was Germany’s occupation of Czech regions in 1938 or, closer to our own time, Russia’s takeover of parts of Ukraine and Georgia. The world rewarded aggression then by staying quiet. It would be another tragedy if we turn our backs on Hong Kong now.

Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images


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