Opinion | China and the Rhineland Moment

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Great struggles between great powers tend to have a tipping point. It’s the moment when the irreconcilability of differences becomes obvious to nearly everyone.

In 1911 Germany sparked an international crisis when it sent a gunboat into the Moroccan port of Agadir and, as Winston Churchill wrote in his history of the First World War, “all the alarm bells throughout Europe began immediately to quiver.” In 1936 Germany provoked another crisis when it marched troops into the Rhineland, in flagrant breach of its treaty obligations. In 1946, the Soviet Union made it obvious it had no intention of honoring democratic principles in Central Europe, and Churchill was left to warn that “an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”

Analogies between these past episodes and China’s decision this week draft a new national security law on Hong Kong aren’t perfect. Hong Kong is a Chinese port, not a faraway foreign one. Hong Kong’s people have ferociously resisted Beijing’s efforts to impose control, unlike the Rhineland Germans who welcomed Berlin’s. And the curtailment of freedom that awaits Hong Kong is nothing like the totalitarian tyranny that Joseph Stalin imposed on Warsaw, Budapest and other cities.

But the analogies aren’t inapt, either. Beijing has spent the better part of 20 years subverting its promises to preserve Hong Kong’s democratic institutions. Now it is moving to quash what remains of the city’s civic freedoms through a forthcoming law that allows the government to punish speech as subversion and protest as sedition. The concept of “one country, two systems,” was supposed to last at least until 2047 under the terms of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. Now China’s rulers have been openly violating that treaty, much as Germany openly violated the treaties of Locarno and Versailles.


By Bret Stephens

2020-05-29 19:55:09

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