The American media tends to care about terrorists, Ebola, and occasionally an unprecedented stand for democracy. The Hong Kong protests fall into this latter category, and that is why we’ve seen any coverage of it at all. Yet coverage like this tends to die out quickly when there is no more sensation. Americans often become jaded in the aftermath of revolutions such as Occupy Wall Street, the ousting of Saddam Hussein, and the Arab Spring. Three years after the Occupy movement, income inequality is as pervasive as ever in this country. Usurping Saddam only led to a power vacuum that the U.S. failed to fill and eventually vacated to ISIS. The Arab Spring precipitated a game of musical chairs of governments in Egypt. It’s easy to understand why an American might click on an article about the Hong Kong protests, look over a few photos, share it on Facebook, and be done with his duty as a civilian. There is, however, an essential difference that makes Hong Kong particularly relevant to Americans and, frankly, everyone in the world. Unlike ISIS, the People’s Republic of China has the capacity to start a world war.
Now, I’m not saying that a world war is imminent or even probable; I’m saying that it’s possible. The problem is that no one ever expects disaster. Before the Holocaust, Hitler was simply Germany’s democratically elected leader with a funny mustache and poor social skills. Before Pearl Harbor, the U.S. thought Japan wouldn’t dare touch a country that was the newly minted world #1 power. Before 9/11, America had enjoyed nearly 60 years without war on her land, and the attacks seemingly came out of the blue. The truth is that disaster is never random — it always arises from an extremely unlikely combination of resources, motivations, and personalities. Because psychology is not always rational, it is useless to argue logic in the case of Hong Kong v. the PRC. Yes, logically it would disadvantageous for China to antagonize Hong Kong. It would be idiotic to commit a repeat of Tiananmen Square and prompt the international community to implement economic sanctions. It would be suicide to wage war agains the United States.
The PRC, while many things, is not rational. Despite the fact that China is on target to surpass the U.S. as the leading world economy within a year or two, the central Chinese government still views itself as highly vulnerable. In their eyes, China is under the siege of so many existential threats, both internal and external, that the possibility of collapse is inevitable unless it takes extraordinary offensive measures. These offensive measures include amassing as much wealth as possible, playing chicken with the U.S. navy in the surrounding seas, and reintegrating Hong Kong and Taiwan. Most importantly, China does not view the U.S. as a fading world power that is increasingly dependent on the Chinese workforce. On the contrary, in the Chinese worldview, the U.S. is the enemy in a dog-eat-dog world in which only the fittest will survive. Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell write for Foreign Affairs:
Whether they see the United States primarily through a culturalist, Marxist, or realist lens, most Chinese strategists assume that a country as powerful as the United States will use its power to preserve and enhance its privileges and will treat efforts by other countries to protect their interests as threats to its own security. This assumption leads to a pessimistic conclusion: as China rises, the United States will resist.
China is convinced that the U.S. is hellbent on its destruction and that it is more than willing to use weapons of massive destruction in an ideological fight to the death. This is the psychological context in which the Hong Kong protests are taking place. For the PRC, this confrontation with Hong Kong is 1) of critical national importance, in the sense that Beijing must win and 2) a method of testing the water in terms of international reaction. Much like the way the Nazi regime used the Spanish Civil War to test its military strength and call the international community’s bluff, China is now employing Hong Kong as a pawn in its “war” with the United States. So far, the reaction from the Obama administration has been one of deafening silence. While Washington’s silence is no doubt strategic and probably beneficial in the short term, I fear that China will take it as a show of weakness or apathy.
Though the PRC is far from provoking anything on the level of the Spanish Civil War, it certainly possesses the motivations and paranoias that predispose it to heading down that path. In the coming years, as China continues to rise and the U.S. continues its decline, a clash seems inevitable. Whether that clash is on the scale of a Cold War-style proxy war or a full-blown world war remains to be seen. Right now, though, our best litmus test for the future is to carefully follow China’s every move with Hong Kong and Taiwan. If China intends to embark on an imperial quest of world domination, surely it will start with the two territories to which it has the most legitimate claim. As a key player of the international community, and the one China views as singularly important, the United States must not follow in the footsteps of London during the Spanish Civil War; neutrality is not a position we can afford to take.
The Umbrella Revolution of 2014 is only the beginning.