Should Europe add pro-democracy protests in far-off Hong Kong to its list of geopolitical crises to confront in order to plug gaps left by America’s abdication of global leadership?
Yes, say European Union foreign policy chief Frederica Mogherini, human-rights activists in the European Parliament, and, most dramatically, Joshua Wong, the default leader of the leaderless “water revolution” on the streets of Hong Kong.
No, signals Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor, the European Union’s acknowledged leader from behind – and this week the first senior Western head of government to meet President Xi Jinping in China since demonstrations erupted in Hong Kong three months ago. A day before her departure for China a senior German government official said there were no plans for her to meet with Hong Kong protesters. This was the cool response to Wong’s open letter asking for a meeting, noting Merkel’s own upbringing in Communist East Germany, and equating today’s street demonstrations in Hong Kong with those in East Germany in 1989 that helped democratize the east (by hastening swift German unification).
Pitting semi-autonomous European soft power against the bitter ongoing trade war between the American ex-hyperpower and its rising Asian challenger would certainly be a long shot. It would face strong resistance in President Donald Trump’s zero-sum “America First”; in Xi Jinping’s new-old “China Dream”; and in competing economic priorities for Berlin in dealing with its biggest trade partner.
Yet the effort would be worth it, argue proponents, if European initiatives could reinforce Xi’s own reluctance to resort to brute force before the gala 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1. Or if spillover effects could slow fragmentation of globalized supply chains under the ruinous US-Chinese trade war or the parallel rise in popular American fears of a predetermined “Thucydides trap” escalation into a shooting war.
“I think it would be extremely important for Europe to fill the vacuum” left by American retreat from geopolitical leadership, commented Michael Schaefer, head of the BMW Foundation and a former German ambassador to China, in an interview. He contends that EU advice to Xi to avoid the reputational damage of any repeat of the Tiananmen massacre of pro-democracy students 30 years ago might help Xi save face in backing down from threats to send Chinese troops into Hong Kong to rout the protesters.
Certainly Merkel, now on her twelfth trip to China, is one of the best European interlocutors Xi could have at this point. To be sure, Germany has soured on China recently over the decreasing value of five years of efforts to build bilateral trust with a “comprehensive strategic partnership” while Xi rolled back the political reforms of Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping, made himself president for life, and restored Leninist discipline to the Chinese Communist Party. Germany has also soured on China over some of the same issues that drive America’s pushback to Chinese technological theft and hostile takeovers of high-tech Western firms.
Yet Merkel’s private pitch to Xi on the Hong Kong demonstrations will surely be sober and pragmatic. She will stress the costs of any violent transgression of the treaty sealing the British return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997 under the principle of “one country, two systems.” Under that treaty Hong Kong’s system preserves freedom of assembly and speech until 2047, along with a court system that is independent of political control and has made Hong Kong a key financial center where investors can trust the rule of law.
It is this inherited “system” that has nurtured a distinctive sense of Hong Kong identity for almost two generations. It is this identity that makes protesters ask reporters to describe them as Hong Kongers rather than Chinese. And it was this identity that first made up to two million students, bureaucrats, and other members of the new middle class take to the streets last June to oppose a draft law that would allow extradition of Hong Kongers to China and subject them to a court system that is subordinate to the Chinese Communist Party. That legislation was finally scrapped earlier this week, but the protesters are still pressing their further demands for return of Hong Kong’s rights in an independent investigation of police use of force; amnesty for the 1000-plus arrested demonstrators; a halt to calling the protests “riots”; and implementation of universal suffrage.
Actually, by now Hong Kong itself is not the main issue for President Xi. Beijing no longer needs the city as its financial heart. A combination of Singapore, Shanghai, and Hong Kong’s Chinese neighbor of Shenzhen could handle the money, confirms Frank Pieke, Director of the Mercator Institute for Chinese Studies in Berlin. “The crucial issue is Taiwan,” he states.
Indeed, China buffs assume that Merkel’s matter-of-fact warning of the consequences of any violent end to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong will focus on Taiwan. The major deterrent to more aggressive shrinking of rights in Hong Kong by Beijing is not international reproaches. Instead, it is the negative impact such transgressions would have on restoring Beijing’s eventual rule over the island that Nationalist Chinese fled to when they were defeated by the Communists in 1949. Joshua Wong has pointedly presented his case in person to avid listeners in Taiwan. And as of this week, Pieke points out, in a departure from earlier years of flirtation with mainland China by numerous Taiwan politicians, only one of the candidates for the presidential election in four months in this vibrant democracy advocates reunification with the Chinese motherland.
Europe’s soft power will never prevent the South China Sea from becoming a Chinese lake, of course. But it could conceivably bend the Chinese bamboo here and there.
Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and author.