An Urban's Rural View

Why Hong Kong Matters

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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Observing Hong Kong's democracy protests these past six months from 8,000 miles away, I marvel at the protesters' determination and persistence even as I tremble at the thought that what lies ahead might be a replay of the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989.

Having resided in Hong Kong for nine years and another eight in Tokyo, I know a lot of old Asia hands in Washington. None of them think the protests in Hong Kong will end well. Most are surprised China hasn't lined troops up against the protesters already.

In Beijing in 1989 the ruling Communist party tolerated less than two months of protests before opening fire, killing hundreds if not thousands. Today's Chinese Communist Party is, if anything, fiercer in its insistence on absolute one-party rule than it was 30 years ago.

Most Americans sympathize with the Hong Kong protesters' aims if not always their tactics, which have turned increasingly violent. President Donald Trump has signed legislation in support of the protesters that passed the Senate on a unanimous vote and the House 417-1. The legislation authorizes sanctions against Chinese and Hong Kong officials involved in human rights abuses.

China has attacked this law as illegal interference in its internal affairs and warned it would retaliate. So far it hasn't. The Chinese still seem interested in reaching a "first phase" trade agreement, the one Trump announced in October, apparently prematurely.(…)

Trump is still pushing for that deal. In signing the legislation he issued a statement emphasizing his "constitutional authorities for foreign relations." According to a Wall Street Journal report from Beijing, Chinese officials read this as Trump giving himself wiggle room not to enforce the law. They are urging him not to implement it, saying that would risk "undermining our bilateral relations and cooperation in important areas." (…)

Americans, including American farmers and ranchers, have many reasons to care about what happens next in Hong Kong. There's our instinctive desire to see people everywhere enjoy the benefits of freedom and democracy. Some of us have a certain self-interest, as well -- more on that in a minute.

I have personal reasons to care. I know a lot of good people in Hong Kong. I lived there from 1992 to 2001, serving as editor and later publisher of what was then a separate newspaper with its own printing plants, its own staff and an Asia-wide circulation, The Asian Wall Street Journal.

These were the years of the so-called Asian Economic Miracle. Asia, with Hong Kong as its financial center, was booming. Even the laggard economies in the region were growing two or three times as fast as America's. China's was growing 10% a year.

I remember well the British handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. The agreement between the two countries called for the city to maintain considerable independence. It was described as "one country, two systems" and it raised hopes in Hong Kong's people that their political system would gradually become more democratic. It's because those hopes haven't been realized that Hong Kongers are in the streets.

But you don't have to be a devotee of democracy or to have lived in Hong Kong for the place to matter to you. If you're a farmer or rancher, it matters because restoring trade with China hangs in the balance.

Back before the Trump trade wars began, China was American agriculture's biggest export market. One of the chief aims of the president's negotiations with China is to make it the biggest again.

In his premature October announcement of a partial agreement he said the Chinese had promised to buy an eye-popping $40 billion to $50 billion of American ag products. Far from confirming that, the Chinese have dodged and weaved. (…) As DTN's Chris Clayton pointed out in a recent blog post, there's been a lot of speculation about a China trade deal but so far little hard fact. (…)

Still, it does seem in recent days as if both sides are intent on reaching some sort of trade deal. Pretty much any deal is likely to be better than the status quo. But beware the worst-case scenario that could undo even the best agreement: a violent Chinese crackdown in Hong Kong.

For even if Trump in his signing statement was indeed giving himself wiggle room not to enforce the law, a Tiananmen rerun would force his hand. A massacre in Hong Kong would subject the president to unendurable political pressure to act. And once he acted, the Chinese would have to retaliate.

That's why Hong Kong matters. Although the city has been relatively quiet the last couple of weeks, the situation retains the potential to spin out of control. If it does, it could take U.S.-China relations, including trade relations, down with it.

Urban Lehner can be reached at



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