China's worst fears: Hong Kong, Taiwan and any other democracy

Hong Kong police have repeatedly assailed pro-democracy demonstrators in street clashes for weeks now. In mid-July, suspected Chinese organized gang members assaulted protesters at a local train station.

The introduction of gang violence to quash Hong Kong’s pro-democracy groups was reminiscent of the Polish communist party’s recruitment of violent criminals to help put down Solidarity protests in the early 1980s. And, just as with the Solidarity movement, the Hong Kong protests that began two months ago against a proposed extradition law are part of a larger historical question of democracy’s future — and of China’s growing threat to it.

This requires perspective.


Modern liberal politics embraces universals. Universal rights — both for citizens and for mankind — undergird contemporary Western morality. Variations exist between constitutions — the centralized French model vs. German federalism or British parliamentarianism. Nevertheless, each regime locates the ultimate source of its political power in its people. Democratic elections are consistent affirmations of popular legitimacy.

The ancient world, by contrast, classified regimes by two categories. The first, who rules — the one, the few, or the many — is familiar to modern students of political science; it is an empirical category that distinguishes between governments based upon who holds political power. The second, just or unjust, is less familiar to contemporary observers; it demands examining the goals of each regime and understanding the relationship between a government and society on the one hand and human happiness on the other.

Hence, our ancient antecedents divided each empirical regime type into two variants, just or unjust. Democracy was contrasted with mob rule, aristocracy with oligarchy, monarchy with tyranny.

This distinction between just and unjust regimes, regardless of power distribution, allowed ancient thinkers — and, to a degree, their Enlightenment successors — to identify “mixed” regimes which blended the characteristics of each type. In fact, most governments throughout history have been mixed, including executive-monarchical, legislative-democratic and deliberative-aristocratic aspects. The West’s most powerful, durable regimes have had such a mixed character, with Republican Rome being the archetype.

The idea of political justice, in lieu of legitimacy, is not restricted to Western thought. Chinese history, in particular, includes a similar concept — the “Mandate of Heaven.” A just government that holds the Mandate of Heaven governs in accordance with the universe’s natural order, serving as a legitimate custodian of the public good and furthering the happiness and flourishing of its subjects. Unrest, revolution and civil war indicate the loss of such a mandate. One can divide Chinese history using this concept, marking off periods of stability, in which the ruling dynasty held the mandate, and those of disorder, in which new claimants struggled with old rulers and amongst each other for political power.


If properly executed, blending structural and intellectual aspects of different just regimes can strengthen a political system. But one cannot mix a just and an unjust regime: The just regime’s fuller picture of human good is a pervasive threat to its unjust counterpart. A tyrant must masquerade as legitimate, fabricating a definition of justice to conceal the brutal nature of his regime; any alternative political structure that could lay claim to his polity is, by necessity, a mortal threat.

This explains the terror that Hong Kong’s liberal democratic system generates in Beijing. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by Mao Zedong wrested away control of the country after a 12-year civil war, broken up by a decade-long struggle against Imperial Japan during World War II in which rival Nationalist Chinese forces bore the brunt of the fighting. The CCP subsequently engaged in multiple purges and social “reconstruction measures” that slaughtered or starved at least five times as many people as Hitler’s Nazi regime murdered during the Holocaust. After Chairman Mao’s death, political violence declined, and economic and social freedoms eventually expanded under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership. Nevertheless, every high-ranking member of the CCP knows he serves a regime that slaughtered more Chinese than any foreign enemy.

Hong Kong’s history of British rule provided a distinct tradition championing deliberation, political representation, and economic and social freedom over violence and despotism. Citizens are free to choose their own ends and make their own happiness in their own ways. This freedom has given Hong Kongers a quality of life comparable to that of New Yorkers, Londoners and Parisians.

Full-fledged representative democracy may not be possible in a country as large as China. But it is undeniable that Hong Kong’s vibrancy, its flourishing and happiness, starkly contrast with mainland China’s quality of life. The intellectual, social and political freedoms Hong Kongers enjoy are a mortal threat to the Beijing government’s survival.

Thus, the legal fight over extradition represents the most blatant step towards crushing Hong Kong’s democracy and imposing the mainland’s authoritarian political system.


The Hong Kong crisis underscores China’s strategy in the Pacific. If semi-autonomous, democratic-capitalist Hong Kong frightens China’s President Xi Jinping and his inner circle, the prospect of a fully independent, democratic-capitalist Taiwan — just 81 miles off the Chinese coast — must terrify them.

Taiwan’s inhabitants enjoy political, social and economic freedoms, and a quality of life comparable to any advanced Western democracy. It provides both an alternative governance model for a united China and, alongside Hong Kong, an example for localized pro-democracy and federalist movements that could crop up at any time.

It is no surprise, then, that as China attempts to impose its will upon Hong Kong, it also has reemphasized its desire to absorb Taiwan into the mainland’s political system. During press briefings on the newly released 2019 Chinese Defense White Paper, government officials stressed that Beijing would use military force to halt formal Taiwanese independence. Chinese warships, combat aircraft and strategic bombers have circled the island multiple times over the past two years, to intimidate both Taiwan and the United States. The Defense White Paper also lists Taiwanese, Tibetan and East Turkestan independence movements as equivalent threats to Chinese interests.

The message is clear. Autonomous ethnically Chinese political units, even absent military power and independent foreign relations, are a source of fear for the mainland’s regime. They must — or so Beijing’s authoritarian rulers believe — be absorbed into today’s version of the Chinese empire, regardless of the means. Xi and the rest of the CCP elite know China’s imperial history: The Mandate of Heaven is elusive, and a society as large and fundamentally heterogeneous as China’s is always strewn with kindling for revolution.

The time has passed in which America and its Pacific allies could engage both Beijing and Taipei. Equivocation today equals weakness, which will invite violence. Only the credible threat of force will deter China’s ambitions. Patrols through the Taiwan Strait are useful but insufficient without sterner measures that greatly improve Taiwan’s ability to discourage China from using force.

Three policy areas require focus. First, the U.S. must support Taiwan’s defense capabilities, through direct technology transfers and assistance for indigenous military programs, particularly an anti-air defense network and effective submarine force. Second, the U.S. must encourage cooperation between Taiwan and other Pacific allies similarly threatened by Chinese ambitions, like Vietnam and Japan. Third, the U.S. must reevaluate its defense and diplomatic posture in the Pacific, by increasing force deployments to the region, reinvesting in U.S. missile defenses and submarines, and pressuring China with economic and political tools.

Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute and director of Hudson’s Center for American Seapower. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations.