That long-term approach won’t bear fruit immediately, but it’s all the more worthwhile for Secretary of State Liz Truss to try
Euphemistically labeled “controversial” by the BBC, the vote was at best a facade of democracy. The percentage of seats up for election has been reduced, only candidates who passed a loyalty test to Beijing were allowed to run, and activists have been arrested for urging fellow citizens not to vote – all on top of years of intimidation and repression .
This weekend’s Hong Kong “elections” mark a depressing new frontier for China’s expansionist dictatorship.
Voter turnout plummeted from 58 percent to 30 percent – Hong Kongers are not stupid, why vote in a sham election that offers only a semblance of democracy? Many of her countrymen, of course, have already voted with their feet and fled their kidnapped homes to start a new life in Britain, the United States and elsewhere.
We do not yet know if this will be the culmination of Chinese Communist Party rule, but there is good reason to fear it will not. Beijing certainly has ambitions to go much further – both by taking direct control of more territory and by threatening other countries to remain silent or obey.
Lithuania is the latest target of China’s aggressive foreign policy. For the sin of engaging in diplomatic talks – not even formal recognition, just contact – with Taiwan, the Baltic state faces an economic caning, with Lithuanian imports being blocked at Chinese customs.
The fall of Hong Kong is just one front in the ongoing struggle between freedom and tyranny.
Russia continues to threaten Ukraine – not with an invasion, as is often misreported, but with another invasion beyond that perpetrated in 2014.
Judging by past performance, the Kremlin hopes to adopt an aggressive stance that will prompt Kiev’s western allies to push for a negotiated “peace” that will reward Russia with even more loot as the price for breaking its earlier agreements. It worked before, and like any protection racket, Putin’s gang state is optimistic it will work again.
Meanwhile, a court in Berlin last weekend convicted an assassin of a murder in the city committed on the orders of the Russian state. This is just the latest example of Putin’s death squads at work in free countries, as happened in Salisbury in 2018.
Whether in Europe or Asia, this process of managed decline — of bartering and handing over people and lands to tyrannical predators bit by bit, bite by bite — is both wrong and counterproductive.
Each retreat costs those on the front lines their most prized liberties and often their lives, and further weakens the remaining free nations, depriving us of trading partners, allies and friends.
Meanwhile, bullies like China and Russia everywhere are learning the lesson of the lenient bully, gaining confidence and aggression with every victory.
British foreign policy offers a few ways to reverse this. We have already seen encouraging steps in the right direction – not least Dominic Raab’s commendable decision to provide a safe haven for many Hong Kongers seeking refuge.
But there is still much more work to be done, both for ourselves and by encouraging our allies to up their game as well. It is encouraging that Liz Truss, Raab’s successor as Secretary of State, appears to appreciate the scale and urgency of the challenge.
In a speech earlier this month, she warned, “In recent years the free world has lost track of the ball … confident that freedom and democracy would inexorably go global on their own.” She criticized “strategic drift”, reduced defense spending and the risk of becoming “strategically dependent on cheap gas or on others for vital technologies like 5G” – warnings from Russia and China that are hard to ignore.
She laid out a strategy to “build a network of freedom” and called for the use of “ideas, influence and inspiration” to push it further.
There are already positive signs. Trade and security deals with like-minded countries help, and the government seems far more careful about exactly who we let into the foundations of sensitive infrastructure like communications and energy than has been the case under some previous governments.
Certainly more can be done on the Ideas, Influence and Inspiration front. The Federal Foreign Office could do worse than study the example of the pioneer of classical liberalism, Linda Whetstone, who died a few days ago.
Through her network for a free society, Whetstone spread the key texts of liberal philosophy and ideas to hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people in societies where they were otherwise unavailable. This is the basis of freedom: be it helping Iranians gain access to the works of Adam Smith in Farsi, spreading ideas of academic freedom in South Sudan, or sending translated philosophy and political theory DVDs and CDs to Kyrgyzstan.
This is a long-term approach that does not bear fruit immediately, but over long periods of time, but is all the more rewarding for that.
It’s also a fundamentally optimistic way of conducting foreign policy. In her “Network of Freedom” speech, Truss quoted JFK arguing that we should try to triumph “not with an imperialism of violence or fear, but with the rule of courage and freedom and hope for the future of mankind.” .
What better way to do this than to trust the merits of the ideas of liberty – believing that they are so compelling, so robust, so visible, and of course good, that they will spread and will spread if they do just tell people about it?
That, after all, is what tyrants fear most – that they may temporarily conquer territory or some institutions, but they can never conquer the human heart.
Mark Wallace is CEO of ConservativeHome, a blog independent of the Tory party