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To support Hong Kong’s freedom, remember America’s revolution

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While much of the world focuses on the coronavirus pandemic and the struggle for racial justice, China is tightening its grip on Hong Kong. What can the United States do? Not much in the short term, so it’s time to think about the long term: This Fourth of July, we can prepare for Hong Kong’s independence by recommitting to our own.

Many people assume that instead of making new countries, we should improve the ones we have, through rights, democracy or federalism. Those are great solutions — when they work. Hong Kong reminds us why they aren’t enough.

Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” formula, assuring the British colony autonomy for 50 years. Most Hong Kongers support autonomy; many want independence. Last year, millions took to the streets to defeat a law allowing extradition to China.

Now Beijing has bypassed local institutions to impose national security legislation, criminalizing peaceful protests and weakening the city’s independent judiciary. Two pro-democracy parties already have disbanded, saying it’s too dangerous to operate in the new environment.

The Trump administration opposes China’s moves. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called them “a death knell for the high degree of autonomy Beijing promised for Hong Kong.” But America’s options are limited. Economic countermeasures would mostly punish Hong Kong. Reducing its special access to American markets could accelerate integration with the mainland.

Hong Kong’s travails are a reminder that, even in a globalized world, statehood matters. Autonomy leaves communities at the mercy of other masters: Recently India revoked Kashmir’s, and Spain suspended Catalonia’s. For now, Hong Kongers have a rights-respecting society, but inside China, Uighurs and Tibetans have only Potemkin autonomies. China criminalizes even peaceful advocacy for independence; its call to reunite with Taiwan no longer refers to “peaceful” means.

China won’t let Hong Kong go. But America can support the right of its people peaceably to determine their political destiny.

Rhetoric unmatched by resources is irresponsible, as Hungarians learned in 1956, and Iraqi Shiites in 1991. America shouldn’t encourage resistance that it cannot back; neither should it be the world’s enforcer. Besides, we mustn’t play into Beijing’s false narrative that foreigners are directing the protests.

But reckless cheerleading or global policing aren’t our only choices. During the Cold War, the U.S. engaged the Soviet Union without ever conceding the legitimacy of its occupation of the Baltic states. We didn’t urge Lithuanians to suicidal protest, but we never abandoned their claim. That was a realistic and principled policy. We need a similarly measured approach with the new superpower.

Supporting freedom for peoples inside China — or around the world — would challenge fundamental principles of the postwar global order. But those rules too often provide cover for states to oppress their own citizens. A right to exit would let alienated communities negotiate their departure, or bargain for a better deal to stay.

How could we promote a right of exit? We could start with ourselves.

Yes, we fought a war about that. But secession wasn’t the evil then — legal slavery was, and the right response to enslavement, in any form, is liberation. After all, the Civil War was our second secession. We fought the first on the declarative proposition that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that it is the right of the people to alter or abolish … you know the rest.

Hong Kong was a British colony, too. It shouldn’t become a colony of China, nor be submerged into the dubious glory of a new Middle Kingdom. What Hong Kongers — and peoples from Kashmir to Cameroon — seek is what Americans sought, long ago: Control of their destiny. A voice. And barring that, exit into freedom.

Reaffirming our revolutionary values would give us authority to champion freedom for others. The American nation, twice-forged in defeat of a lawful tyranny, should stand for the self-evident truth that greatness comes not with the chimera of sovereignty, nor with territory, but with freedom.

Whether for Puerto Ricans, the Navajo Nation, or our red-blue mainland, we should welcome this unending debate — not to weaken our country, but because we make our union stronger when we freely choose it.

China sees aggrandizement as greatness; it isn’t asking Hong Kongers if they agree. There’s not much Americans can do to stop them, except show what a free nation aspires to be. Fling open the gates and ask ourselves to stay. Many nations could answer that challenge, but no nation afraid to ask can call itself great.

Timothy William Waters is a professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law and associate director of its Center for Constitutional Democracy. He is the author of “Boxing Pandora: Rethinking Borders, States and Secession in a Democratic World” (Yale University Press, 2020).

Tags China aggression Hong Kong Hong Kong independence Mike Pompeo One country, two systems

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