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Hong Kong’s Fall Is No Arab Spring Hong Kong’s Fall Is No Arab Spring

Hong Kong’s Fall Is No Arab Spring

Redeemer University College’s Robert Joustra sees protests and violence in Hong Kong as a desperate attempt to fend off autocracy, not the attempt to implant democracy that characterized geopolitical risings a decade ago.

Robert Joustra
4 minute read

In 1972, Secretary of State for External Affairs, Mitchell Sharp, famously penned his Third Option doctrine. It was not exactly anti-American, but it was American-anxious. The idea was to reduce Canada’s vulnerability to swings in mood and trade from the United States by diversifying our economic, cultural, and political relations, especially toward rising powers, like India and China. That was the dream of Trudeau Senior’s foreign policy, and it’s one that Trudeau Junior certainly gave a college-try. 

We can savor some of the little ironies in Canada’s now largely dead bilateral relations with China. At least one is that extradition is at the center of the drama for both countries. When Canada, despite embarrassing hemming and hawing, an ambassadorial dismissal or so, and not inconsiderable foreign pressure, finally decided to honour its extradition treaty with the United States in the case of Meng Wanzhou, it was a final blow to any lingering hopes of a China/Third Option. 

Saudi Arabia had already proved that Canada was ready and willing to be the autocrat’s punching bag, not so much because what we were saying was wrong (Khashoggi certainly proved that), but because our moralistic hectoring of our closest allies meant they were willing to hang us out to dry. This fact, a hard truth for canola and pig farmers in Canada, is now a life and death matter for former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and Canadian businessman Michael Spavor, both imprisoned in China for alleged espionage. 

Extradition was also the triggering incident for the months long protests that have swept Hong Kong. When in March of this year Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Hong Kong’s Legislative Council introduced a proposed extradition law, it was hard to predict this would be the tipping point. Yet Hong Kong residents, who have long labored under the tick-tock anxiety of the 1997 one-system-two-governments treaty, received the law with fresh alarm. The extradition law could effectively empower the kind of strategic disappearances and easy repressions that have become a sad hallmark of Chinese politics, reinforced over the last decade. Is it an overreaction on Hong Kong’s part? I doubt the Uighurs would think so.

Writes Olivia Enos and Sarah Brown at Providence

Citizens from all walks of life have joined—ordinary citizens, individuals from the business community, students, members of faith-based groups, and lawyers. Everyone feels that something is at stake for them (emphasis added).

All of which fits neatly in the long, bloody history of extradition, its perils and problems, because extradition isn’t (just) about enforcing a mesh of haphazardly binding international laws, but about power, and whose rules will be the rules. 

This is maybe the crucial difference between what we are seeing in Hong Kong and what we saw with the now largely nostalgic, somewhat tragic, Arab Spring(s) of the 2010s. Undoubtedly there is a serious, moral relationship between these ‘revolutions,’ including questions of democratization, the rule of law, even the relationship between the secular and the sacred. But unlike in the Arab Spring, there is the added wrinkle of an increasingly belligerent global power flexing its jurisdictional autonomy over territory that in 2047 is slated for complete consolidation. Geopolitically speaking the Arab Spring was violent, but the Hong Kong revolution is dangerous.

This was the driving question of Henry Kissinger’s serious and important book On China: Can China moderate its rise and accommodate itself to a world order it did not design, and can the world, especially the United States, accommodate itself, its rules, and its order, to the rise of Chinese power? In 1997, or even in 2012 when Kissinger wrote his book, it seemed China might be on the slow path to liberalization, first economically, then politically. 

The incredibly intense backlash against the global liberal order, hardly an exclusively Chinese pastime, is fast becoming rule rather than exception: We visit Russia, India, Myanmar, the Philippines, Brazil, Hungary, Turkey, the list does go on. Populism some call it, but the consequence in many regions has been a slippage into autocracy. Somewhat sensationally the cover theme for the latest Foreign Affairs (Sept/Oct 2019) is titled, “Autocracy Now.”

What is unfolding in Hong Kong is about far more than a regional power settling post-colonial scores. It is about the constitution of international order. The question of whether China can accommodate its rise to that order seems now almost quaint: Whose order, we might immediately ask? Extradition is an easy fall-boy for this grander problem: Whose laws? Under what rules? Why obey these rather than others? 

Stuck in the middle, Canada has had some choices to make, and made them look rather harder than most Canadians, I think, would wish. Canada has an enviably optimistic history of trying to build political and economic relationships with the bad boys of the international system: Sharp’s Third Option fueled détentes with the Soviet Union, Cuba, and others. That it tweaked the United States was always a salacious bonus, to remind the Yanks we keep our own counsel. But unsavory as many Canadians may find the current occupant of the White House in the United States, it does not seem to me there is a reasonable debate to be had about whose order, and which laws Canada might wish for in the international system. 

Diversification is a great economic temptation, and usually even good trade policy, but it’s not good foreign policy. We should be watching Hong Kong very closely, with a real stake in the outcome. It is the world and its order that will be remade before our eyes.

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