Hong Kong shows that the West has lost its confidence in democracy and self-determination
Three years ago I happened to be in Hong Kong as the "Umbrella Protests" were sputtering out. The pro-democracy demonstrators were still there, almost two years after they had first set up camp outside the government headquarters. But now, on a drizzly day, they were sitting huddled under the walkways off what had been the main protest site, their umbrellas practical as well as symbolic as their numbers and hopes dwindled.
It was a depressing sight, these few locals hoping for some support that never arrived. But in some ways what struck me more were the conversations I had in the weeks after that visit, as I happened to pass in close succession through the capitals of France, Britain and America.
In Paris I described the situation to friends. They listened with furrowed brows as I told them about the abduction of the Hong Kong booksellers and the tightening of Beijing's grip on the island. All lamented the situation. But then came the inevitable reply: "Bah. But what are you going to do? It's China." I wished the responses in London had been different. But while the brows were equally furrowed, and some palpable embarrassment showed itself on the faces of officials, still the statement would come back. "But it's China."
Only in one capital was that rejoinder not commonplace. Only in Washington did people in and out of government respond with questions about what might be done to support the protestors and how the US might be a better friend to people in this tiny but significant former British colony.
I thought of those conversations this week as protests flared up once again in Hong Kong. Protests during which the British flag was waved as a symbol of freedom and defiance. A sight that should have stirred a far greater response from this country than it has remotely done. Granted, Britain's Brexit monomania means that there seems almost no political bandwidth to deal with any other major issue. But the lack of attention is striking. For it comes from the Right as much as the Left and is as clear a demonstration as anything of this country's ever-smaller global ambition.
The situation in Hong Kong should at least force us to think. Not just because this country owes some responsibility to the people of Hong Kong, but because our weakness on this relatively small matter betrays a greater weakness on a greater one.
In Washington there are hawks on China and there are people who just want to do business. But the argument is had out fiercely and in the open because the issue of Chinese ambition is recognised to be an unparalleled long-term strategic question. So pronounced has this debate become there that just three months ago the Committee on the Present Danger (founded during the Cold War to strengthen US attitudes towards the Soviets) was reconstituted to address the threat it perceives from China.
Others of our allies have begun to take the question equally seriously. In the past two decades it sometimes seemed as though China could do no wrong in the eyes of successive Australian governments. It invested in Australia, bought up property and who could complain? Well, the Australians might be said to have gone through a laboratory test over what China's way of exerting influence actually means. And rarely has a country wised up to a situation more sharply. Australian attitudes towards China took a palpable turn under Malcolm Turnbull's prime ministership. It is no coincidence that Australia - part of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network - has been leading the way in trying to warn the British government over its positive attitude towards Huawei. In Australia as in America, New Zealand and Canada, there is some amazement that on this most crucial of security issues it should be Britain that is proving a weak link.
The truth is that on matters big and small our allies have seen the China question coming. And in private most British security experts are in agreement: the only realistic long-term threat to what was the Western order comes from China. And yet in the short-term this country demonstrates an extraordinary subservience to that country's regime. It was demonstrated by David Cameron's government after the 2012 Dalai Lama row and the Chinese authorities' insistence on grovelling apologies from the British officials seeking renormalisation after that affair. And it might be personified by the fact that, in retirement, Mr Cameron has chosen to make money he doesn't need working with a China investment fund.
On few other international questions is our political class so unanimously supine. Labour and Tory politicians who try to outdo each other in signalling their personal distaste for Donald Trump happily sit down to dinners with the Chinese Communist Party's leadership. This despite the fact that Mr Trump is the only person in the world in any position to affect China's otherwise remorseless reach.
Of course, there are reasons for this. Sections of the British Left remain more than admiring of what Chairman Mao achieved during his time at the helm. A fact evidenced by the statements and actions of the shadow home secretary and shadow chancellor, to name but two. Such Left-wingers tend to believe that while the capitalist elements of modern China have gone too far, at least the foundations are good. On the Right, by contrast, there has been a growing acceptance for some years now that China is developing a system of governance (capitalism without democracy) which we will have to accept and find a way to work around.
But beneath that is a far greater problem. For to accept this fact is to accept that our own system - one which Britain once not merely practised but exported - has somehow met its match. It is to accept that our presumption that free people operating in free markets is the optimal human condition is just a presumption. One which might suit us, but not others.
Long term there are consequences to such thinking.
Which is why those damp and demoralised protestors I saw three years ago stuck
with me. Because people who think that freedom is for some people but not
others are more than capable of someday accepting that perhaps in fact freedom
suits no one.