In a recent escalation in tensions, the Chinese government announced a new national security law for Hong Kong that would essentially end the “one country, two systems” dynamic that was agreed upon when Hong Kong ceased being a British protectorate in 1997. While there are several reasons for Beijing taking this action, one of the main ones is that Hong Kong’s liberal model of governance and economics fundamentally undermines the closed society headed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In the current age of peer competition between the U.S. and China, the greatest tool for combatting China’s closed society is to be a completely open one; maintaining open markets, open borders, and open minds.
One of the greatest foreign policy initiatives of the Obama administration was the forging of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed comprehensive trade agreement that would have included the U.S. and 11 other nations, seven of them being from the Asia-Pacific. This trade agreement was initially conceptualized as part of the Obama administration’s pivot from the Middle East to Asia as its foreign policy focus and as a method of countering Chinese hegemony in the Asia-Pacific.
In the same way that the TPP was one of the Obama administration’s greatest foreign policy initiatives, withdrawing the U.S. from the agreement has arguably been one of the Trump administration’s greatest foreign policy blunders. The conscious decision to cede the Asia-Pacific to China has proved to be a strategic miscalculation. By enabling Chinese economic dominance in the region, the U.S. has ensured that the countries of the Asia-Pacific will be further reliant on China and more susceptible to its authoritarian model of development.
Rejoining the TPP as a means of promoting a posture of economic openness in the Asia-Pacific and balancing Chinese influence in the region should be a top priority for U.S. policy makers.
If China’s proposed national security law winds up being enacted, the people of Hong Kong would all of a sudden be forced to reckon with an expedited shift in their way of life, a prospect that most of them dread. In light of this reality, one of the most productive things that the U.S. could do to counter China’s unlawful power grab in Hong Kong would be to open its borders to Hong Kong citizens who wish to flee the possibility of their home succumbing to CCP-style authoritarian rule.
The United Kingdom is currently leading the way in this regard, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently announcing that the UK will provide a potential pathway to citizenship for roughly 3 million Hong Kongers. While this initiative stems from the UK’s unique historical relationship with Hong Kong, that does not negate the fact that the U.S. could — and should — enact similar measures. Such a policy would allow the U.S. to live up to the cliché of it being a land of opportunity by allowing millions of people to escape the authoritarianism of the Chinese state. This would make the contrast between the American and Chinese ways of life incredibly stark.
Lastly, the U.S. posture of openness should extend beyond free trade agreements and special visa arrangements, but also to the treatment of people of Chinese descent residing in and visiting the U.S. The U.S. has an ugly history of anti-Chinese racism, recently manifested in racist attacks that some people of Chinese descent have suffered following China’s botched handling of COVID-19. This bigotry is morally repugnant, and it is short-sighted. People of Chinese descent who choose to reside in the U.S. — especially those who have been exposed to both the American and Chinese systems — exemplify the edge that the U.S. has over China in this peer competition. The U.S. is only going to be able to sustain its reputation as an open society if all are welcomed within its borders.
Writing about an open society from an American perspective in the aftermath of the U.S. government ordering the tear gassing of peaceful protestors outside of the White House may seem like naiveté at best and rank hypocrisy at worst; however, it is neither naïve nor hypocritical to call on the U.S. government to improve upon its shortcomings, regardless of the probability of the situation being rectified in the near future. This is both a matter of good policy and a plea for the U.S. to live up to the values that it has historically espoused.
Austin Doehler is a visiting scholar at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement.