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Xi Jinping's China and Hitler's Germany: Growing parallels

Xi Jinping's China and Hitler's Germany: Growing parallels
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Atop its masthead, the Washington Post warns that “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” That may be true in certain instances, but democracy can also die in direct sunlight, right before our eyes. It’s been happening for months in Hong Kong. 

The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) systematic assault against freedom of speech and assembly, plus other restrictions on Hong Kong’s citizens if they dissent from Xi Jinping’s one-party communist orthodoxy, is a remarkable development with global implications. The CCP abrogated China’s 50-year agreement with the United Kingdom, signed in 1997, that guaranteed Hong Kong citizens’ basic rights, freedoms and political self-determination. China has also imprisoned human-rights advocates and other pro-democracy “dissidents,” claiming that its actions are purely an internal matter needed to assure domestic “stability.”

Hong Kong has long been a major global financial center. Its demise will have significant international ramifications. Western democracies have an obligation now to stop this looming disaster. 

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Hong Kong’s dissidents who bravely challenge the CCP can either remain silent or flee to safer jurisdictions outside China to avoid prosecution. Meanwhile, global companies flock to China and Hong Kong anticipating post-pandemic profits when travel resumes and financial flows to China increase.

To its credit, the Trump administration has levied sanctions against many of those individuals responsible for increasing assaults on Hong Kong’s democracy. But where’s the global outrage? Where’s the United Nations? Where’s Europe? Where’s the Vatican? 

South Africa’s former apartheid regime sparked a sustained and effective global boycott. Where is today’s “boycott China” movement to counter this 21st Century appeasement?

German journalist Volker Ullrich has recently published, in an English translation, the second tome of his two-volume, 1,600-page biography of Adolph Hitler. The first volume, “Ascent: 1889-1939,” chronicled Hitler’s early life and rise to power. The second volume, “Downfall: 1939-1945,” explored the remainder of Hitler’s life, his World War II leadership, and his April 30, 1945, suicide.

Given today’s short-attention-span Twitter age, expecting people to read two lengthy books on any subject is asking a lot, but Ullrich’s study of Hitler may be the best Hitler biography ever written. 

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Earlier Hitler studies remain outstanding classics, but Ullrich offers a broad and deep familiarity with new sources, especially among German archives. He also brings a journalist’s skill in establishing a driving narrative. His biography reads like a thriller, even though we know the outcome from page one.

Hitler’s rise to power, the way he manipulated the German people (including the governing, business and professional classes) and the way he overreached in conducting the Second World War offer extensive lessons for today’s democracies. Hitler’s example provides important, relevant and timely lessons given the escalating, diplomatic, political, military and economic rivalry and tensions between China and the United States. 

“Downfall’s” opening pages are particularly important, especially Hitler’s treatment of the Free City of Danzig that had long been part of Poland. While professing otherwise, Hitler had long planned to reincorporate Danzig into the German Reich. 

On January 5, 1939, Hitler met with the Polish foreign minister, Josef Beck, to tell him that “Danzig is German, will always be German and will join Germany sooner or later,” notwithstanding a German-Polish nonaggression pact signed five years before. Speaking to the Reichstag on January 30, 1939, Hitler cited the nonaggression pact and referred to Germany’s friendship with Poland as “one of the calming phenomena of European political life.”

Eight months later, after Poland continued to resist Hitler’s pressure, on September 1, 1939, German troops invaded Poland. On September 3, 1939, Poland’s close ally, England, along with France, declared war on Germany. World War II had begun.

Hong Kong flourished under British rule and democratic institutions for decades. China promised for 50 years after 1997 that Hong Kong would remain mostly autonomous and retain its democratic freedoms. After 23 years, China reneged on this binding international commitment. 

Nobody knows what will come next, but surely Taiwan’s citizens must be worried. Today’s business-as-usual approach to China surely looks like appeasement. 

The incoming Biden administration must decide quickly how to handle China’s increasingly aggressive international posture and its suppression of democratic freedoms, not only in Hong Kong, but also with respect to persecuted religious minorities throughout China. 

Biden should study Danzig very carefully; let’s not repeat it today.

Charles Kolb served as deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House. Previously, he was president of the Committee for Economic Development, a nonpartisan business-led policy group.