America's protests are nothing like China's crackdown in Hong Kong

America's protests are nothing like China's crackdown in Hong Kong
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The recent Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests have taken on symbolic importance as a potential watershed for the cause of liberal values in the U.S. and elsewhere. While America grapples with its legacy of systemic racism, its ideological adversaries have relished in the purported hypocrisy of Washington’s efforts to promote freedom of speech and human rights abroad, while ostensibly fumbling to uphold those universal values back home.

As people around the world face the real prospect of having to choose between democracy and authoritarianism, America’s status as global champion of human rights appears to be at stake.

China has been virulent in its denunciation of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump on Kanye West's presidential run: 'He is always going to be for us' Marie Yovanovitch on Vindman retirement: He 'deserved better than this. Our country deserved better than this' Trump says Biden has been 'brainwashed': 'He's been taken over by the radical left' MORE’s handling of the BLM protests as evidence that it is the victim of an international double standard concerning matters of freedom and oppression. Beijing views the international community as harboring a selective moral outrage in its censure of the Communist Party’s authoritarian designs in Hong Kong, as well as its systematic subjugation of political dissidents and ethno-religious minorities on the mainland.

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To be sure, the countless random images that have most captivated the world in recent weeks — of demonstrations turning violent and ugly as angry protesters vent their frustrations, of police officers beating and tear-gassing protesters, and of criminal opportunists looting and preying on the weak and innocent — are a stain on America’s international reputation as a defender of liberal values and rules-based institutions. 

However, China’s implication of U.S. hypocrisy regarding Hong Kong is fallacious and dishonest. There is little comparison, as Chinese diplomats have attempted to draw, between Beijing’s overhanded crackdowns on political dissent in Hong Kong and the U.S. government’s handling of the BLM protests.

The former represents the culmination of a years-long assault on Hong Kong’s civil liberties under Xi Jinping, which not only betrays Beijing’s prior legal commitments under “one country, two systems” and undermines the Hong Kong government’s accountability to its people, but also deliberately foments the kind of violent unrest that has sullied the otherwise peaceful, pro-democracy demonstrations there.

The latter, meanwhile, reflects the propensity for America’s political institutions to heed public calls for reform. While Trump’s response to the protests has been callous at worst and clumsy at best, on balance America’s political leadership has sympathized and aligned with the public’s nonviolent calls for reform and accountability.

Democratic governments such as America’s always will struggle to balance their dual commitments to civil liberty and order during times of great social unrest. But any suggestion that these protests might spell the undoing of Washington’s international soft power –– as elites in Beijing seem to believe –– is more misguided still.

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By U.S. standards, the recent public dissent, far from signaling institutional weakness, is proof that America’s political culture is resilient.

American democracy is undoubtedly messy. Its record at home and overseas often has been problematic. Indeed, the difficulty of pulling together a principled, bipartisan consensus at any given time, let alone during times of great distress –– a reflection of the American polity’s current, depressingly polarized condition –– raises troubling questions regarding Washington’s long-term ability to produce leadership capable of insuring a stable, prosperous and orderly global system.

But historically, even when America’s actions ran contrary to its ideals, or its national objectives were themselves self-serving and tragic, a public that dissented on principle, informed by a free press and uninhibited by threats of reprisal, eventually always rose to check society’s worst impulses.

As a counterpoint to China’s efforts to undermine democratic governance throughout Asia, America’s democratic, if disorderly, process of advancing free society supports rather than diminishes Washington’s efforts to advocate for the same overseas.

Since the end of the Cold War, America’s relations with like-minded partners have been grounded in common interests and shared values. For people across Asia, the directive from Washington these past few years has been to cultivate a “free and open” society. The recent protests in the U.S. should surely remind regional partners of the sacrifices of their forefathers who similarly demonstrated for nonviolent political change in India in the 1940s, the Philippines in 1986, Thailand in 2013, Taiwan in 1987 and 2014, and South Korea in 1987 and 2016, to name a few. Even China should recall that cries for freedom and democratic reform rang out not long ago in the streets of Beijing.

The legitimacy of America’s international leadership has long flowed from the strength of its democratic principles. Washington’s perspective on global governance is not merely one of “might makes right,” but rather that a more stable global order will form when liberal values are able to flourish.

Today, as rising tides of nationalism and authoritarianism continue to undermine the global legitimacy of America’s experiment with democracy, Washington will be judged not only by the consequences of its actions, but also by the moral intent of its leadership. It is therefore incumbent upon American society to grapple with its legacy of racism — not only for the sake of domestic progress, but also to secure its national interest and role in championing democracy and human rights around the world.

David Blechman is a Washington-based policy analyst specializing in China and Asia policy. Follow him on Twitter at @dblechs.

Elliot Silverberg is a fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a nonresident fellow at Pacific Forum in Hawaii. Follow him on Twitter at @EISilverberg.