Could President Trump have thwarted the new "security" law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong last week?
Trump's election rival, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, says yes. The law is "another terrible turn for the rights of the Chinese people," Biden said in a statement Wednesday. "It's no wonder Beijing is acting with impunity," he continued. "Time and again, President Trump has surrendered our values and reassured China's autocrats they have a likeminded partner in the White House."
Maybe this is just obligatory campaign-trail antagonism, but Biden is not the only one arguing Hong Kong was somehow Trump's to lose. And Trump's obsequiousness among autocrats is well-established: He has committed himself to defending the Saudi royal house while it murders journalists and bombs children. He speaks of being "in love" with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He is infamously deferential to Russian President Vladimir Putin and China's Xi Jinping, allegedly telling the latter he approved of Beijing's construction of concentration camps for the Uighur people and other Muslim minority groups. Also not in question is how dangerous this new law is for the people of Hong Kong, how it may be the death of "one country, two systems," and how much more difficult it will make the city-state's push for freedom. Arrests have already begun.
So could Trump have stopped this? If we had a leader who, in Biden's phrase, would "stand up for dissidents and defenders of human rights in China," categorically condemning Beijing's oppression of Hong Kong (or its treatment of the Uighurs or any other similarly galling program of Xi's unreformed regime), would things be different? Would the concentration camps shut down? Would the reported forced abortions and sterilizations of Uighurs cease? Would Hong Kong be free?
I think we all know the answer is "no."
This isn't to say Trump's rhetoric toward China is irrelevant. If our purported values of liberty and self-governance have any substance, the U.S. president and Americans more generally should be willing to accurately describe and deplore human rights abuses like these — even if it means, say, the end of lucrative endorsement deals or even bigger economic losses. But I suspect we are deluding ourselves if we think resolute rhetoric from a principled president would meaningfully shift Beijing's behavior here.
The same is true of the transparency and sanctions measures Biden's statement pledges to enforce (measures signed by Trump, by the way), as well as a new sanctions bill now sitting on Trump's desk. If carefully targeted, responses like these might complicate life for some Chinese Communist Party notables and Hong Kong officials who have been complicit with Beijing's demands. (If not targeted carefully, sanctions are notorious for being cruel to ordinary people.)
Yet even well-targeted sanctions are unlikely to force Beijing to backtrack on its handling of Hong Kong. Though they may effectively coerce change on relatively small matters, sanctions are mostly useful for allowing American politicians to claim they've taken Bold Action, action less risky than airstrikes but "stronger" than diplomacy. U.S. sanctions are good at inflicting indiscriminate economic pain, but when it comes to producing desired policy movement, their record is quite poor.
That is typically because the targeted state decides the pain is worth it to keep its policy unchanged. It is fundamentally a judgment about core national interests. North Korea is a useful example here: Kim believes nuclear weapons are necessary for regime survival. Although he wants international sanctions against Pyongyang to be lifted, he is willing to suffer them if that is the price of keeping his arsenal, because regime survival is a core national interest. Sanctions, however punishing, don't change that for him, and they are also unlikely to change Beijing's calculations about Hong Kong.
So what options are left for Washington? (Any sort of military response, of course, is unthinkable, as it risks catastrophic war between the two most powerful militaries on Earth.)
First, acceptance of the limits of U.S. power. As my colleague Joel Mathis commented, "if the last 20 years have taught us anything, it's maybe that we should be skeptical of criticisms [of U.S. foreign policy] that start with the idea that the U.S. can bend the world to its will." We must jettison the absurd belief that Washington can force any and every other nation — and especially a fellow great power like China — to abandon its own perceived interests and do our bidding instead. To say this does not concede an inch on the ethics of other nations' choices; it is simply a recognition that a foreign policy of world domination is unrealistic and often counterproductive.
Second, honest refusal to ignore, excuse, or endorse Beijing's authoritarianism, in contrast to the 53 nations that backed the new law at the United Nations Human Rights Council on Thursday. Washington cannot right every wrong it sees abroad, but it need not dissemble.
Finally, though preventing Beijing's abuses may not be feasible, the United States could offer refuge. The United Kingdom is already responding to the security law this way, offering visas and potential U.K. citizenship to millions of Hongkongers. A bipartisan bill in Congress proposes offering refugee status to "Hong Kong residents who suffered persecution, or have a well-founded fear of it, due to their expression of political opinions or peaceful participation in political activities." Another piece of legislation would speed U.S. immigration for highly skilled Hongkongers.
These are good starts, but the offer should be broadened. If this is a statement about the value of human life and freedom, it should apply to all the people whose lives and freedoms are under threat in Hong Kong. They might prefer to stay and fight for their city, but if they need to leave, the United States can offer sanctuary.