On the same day that violent Trump supporters took over the U.S. Capitol, a different kind of crisis was playing out on the other side of the world. Police in Hong Kong arrested more than 50 opposition activists and pro-democracy candidates, part of a pattern of mass arrests under China’s six-month-old national security law. The message couldn’t be any clearer: “One country, two systems” is over.
This type of insidious power grab has played out before. Haunted by the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian President Vladimir Putin has led his country on a political reconquista over the past two decades, emboldened at least in part by the United States’ unwillingness to show strength to a bully. It started at the turn of the century, when the Chechen Republic was brought under Moscow’s control. Following a period of increased ties between Georgia and the United States in 2008, Russia provoked a conflict in Georgia to justify a subsequent invasion. Perhaps heartened by the lack of international backlash, the Russians subsequently moved on Ukraine, claiming sovereignty over the Crimean Peninsula. This time, there were consequences—international sanctions were quickly slapped on Russia, and it was ejected from the G8. But while the Russian campaign of aggressive land-grabs was temporarily halted, no one believes it’s over.
We now see the Communist Party of China (CCP) moving in a similar trajectory, but in a far more insidious way—emphasizing political rather than military strength, though not unwilling to resort to state violence. After consolidating its power for nearly two decades, China has taken advantage of the period of relative impunity afforded it by the Trump administration to launch a similar power grab in Hong Kong, to crack down in Tibet and engage in brutal repression in the province of Xinjiang. Today, Hong Kong has become subject to the most aggressive anti-democratic crackdown since the Tiananmen Square massacre. To this, the Trump administration said very little—and only on its way out the door did they take action to lift restrictions on diplomatic relations with Taiwan and to finally declare formally that genocide is occurring in Xinjiang.
What comes next, in the vacuum of U.S. leadership, is painted on the walls: Taiwan. Perhaps buoyed by its ability to act in Hong Kong—or emboldened by the lack of United States’ strength in international discourse following the Capitol insurrection—the CCP recently unveiled its detailed “reunification” strategy for Taiwan and has also been floating a “national reunification law” designed to bring the semi-independent territory to heel. In an effort to fend off Beijing, Taiwan has been working to deepen trade deals and strengthen diplomatic ties with the United States. It’s a move that has infuriated the CCP, which warned—following Pompeo’s lifting of diplomatic restrictions with Taiwan—that “The Chinese people’s resolve to defend our sovereignty and territorial integrity is unshakable and we will not permit any person or force to stop the process of China’s reunification.”