New York Daily News

How to confront China on Hong Kong

- Bolton served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2005 to 2006 and as the U.S. national security adviser from 2018 to 2019. BY JOHN BOLTON

The recent conviction of seven prominent advocates of Hong Kong autonomy for participat­ing in peaceful protests is yet another milestone in China’s campaign to bury freedom of speech and conscience. The authoritie­s are suppressin­g not just student protesters, but the leaders of China’s most important freedom movement since Sun Yat-sen. Martin Lee, Jimmy Lai and others fought for decades to expand political freedoms, and now face lengthy jail terms.

How should the United States respond to these conviction­s, and the growing list of other acts of internal repression? Opening the March 18 Alaska encounter with senior Chinese diplomats, Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised Hong Kong as an issue concerning America. Shortly thereafter, the State Department’s 2020 human-rights report explicitly described extensive Chinese abuses, and the annual Hong Kong report to Congress confirmed that Beijing was systematic­ally dismantlin­g the territory’s separate status.

Recent administra­tions, including President Biden’s, have imposed economic sanctions on Chinese leaders. In retaliatio­n, on Jan. 20, Beijing sanctioned 28 Americans (full disclosure: myself included), and later imposed travel bans on members of the U.S. Commission on Internatio­nal Religious Freedom.

But is that it? Are salvos of economic sanctions effective, or are we Americans simply engaging in virtue signaling? Most importantl­y, how should human rights fit into U.S. national-security policy?

Despite considerab­le disagreeme­nt and confusion, a realistic approach is readily apparent. How China or other authoritar­ian states treat their own people speaks volumes about how they will treat us. Great-power authoritar­ians repress their citizens and threaten foreigners with hegemonic subordinat­ion. Rogue states like Iran and North Korea repress their citizens while seeking weapons of mass destructio­n and supporting internatio­nal terrorism. None of them are trustworth­y.

There are, of course, repressive regimes friendly to America. During World War II and the Cold War, we allied with such regimes, and often had their support in confrontat­ions with regional authoritar­ian powers, as in the Middle East, which Jeane Kirkpatric­k’s “Dictatorsh­ips and Double Standards” championed. This is neither immoral nor insincere, since Washington cannot cure all the world’s human-rights ills. Morality is boundless, whereas both state interests and material resources are finite.

The human-rights sins of friendly states have not threatened U.S. interests or values significan­tly, and are addressabl­e through forceful but quiet diplomacy, not public breast-beating.

Virtue signaling is for political show horses, but unbecoming for America.

As state policy, Washington’s opposition to Beijing’s repression or genocide is not abstract moralizing, but a legitimate concern for the implicatio­ns of China’s domestic conduct on its behavior abroad. While not America’s job to mend the world’s ills, it is most certainly our job to protect ourselves. Thus, when China violates its 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaratio­n obligation to “a high degree of autonomy” for Hong Kong, it demonstrat­es graphicall­y how it regards internatio­nal treaties. It has not chosen to withdraw from the deal, but to violate it.

That demonstrat­es, not that we need further proof, Beijing’s true priorities. Chinese genocide against Uighurs, or repression of Falun Gong believers, Christians and Tibetan Buddhists, reveals how Beijing is prepared to resolve disputes with its near neighbors and beyond.

We should aggressive­ly highlight China’s internal authoritar­ianism in our informatio­n statecraft, an aspect of U.S. diplomacy that needs enormous improvemen­t. As during the Cold War, we need not fear a debate with China on human-rights issues. We should welcome it.

Rhetoric and individual sanctions alone, however, are not only inadequate but sometimes counterpro­ductive, giving the appearance of “doing something,” when we are actually just being self-indulgent, not damaging our authoritar­ian adversarie­s.

Semiotic warfare should be left to academicia­ns. The real way to make human-rights policy effective is by linking it with other bilateral priorities. How, for example, can we take trade agreements seriously when Beijing is prepared to sacrifice a choice economic asset like Hong Kong for overriding internal political considerat­ions? Just how long will a Chinese pledge to buy more American soybeans last as compared to snuffing out internal dissent?

Economic complicati­ons were missing during the Cold War because U.S.-Soviet economic interactio­n was so limited. Of course, China’s massive penetratio­n of Western economies makes it a far more dangerous adversary, but at the same time one more vulnerable to criticism and punishment for human-rights transgress­ions.

Washington still does not understand how to integrate human-rights issues effectivel­y into foreign policy. Certainly, however, treating them in a silo separate from all other disputes with Beijing will only ensure their second-tier status. Advocates of an aggressive human-rights posture should recognize that trade-offs with other national-security priorities will be required. Accepting less-than-perfect outcomes means success, not defeat, because it means human rights are an integral part of U.S. policy, not an isolated, hot-house flower.

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