For doe-eyed analysts of the 1990s, political and trade liberalization were two sides of the same coin; free nations would necessarily have an easier time accessing capital, manufacturing goods, and achieving prosperity. But China’s rise hasn’t worked like that. At the time of the peaceful handover of Hong Kong from the British in 1997, the city accounted for nearly 20 percent of the entire Chinese economy. Now, it accounts for less than 3 percent. Beijing recognizes the strong leverage that decline affords it, and has set out to make Hong Kong choose between prosperity and freedom: The city’s massive civic-protest movement against mainland subversion has been incredibly disruptive to its economy.
The pretense that China is just another “market player” allows China to put the same question to the West’s technocrats: What do you really value in the grand scheme of things — this abstraction called “political freedom,” or the freedoms that come from putting bread on the table?
From the Belt and Road initiative across Eurasia, to Huawei’s efforts to muscle in on 5G networks across Europe and the world, to China’s privileged position in Apple’s supply chain, Beijing consistently forces some version of this choice between material comfort and political freedom on others. Try to convince yourself that Chairman Xi doesn’t smile knowing that Apple CEO Tim Cook freely criticizes religious-freedom laws in the United States, but remains silent while the Chinese government rotates persecuted and interned Uighur Muslims into the factories of Apple’s subcontractors.