In today’s world, authoritarian politics and predatory commerce cooperate to exploit “cultural differences.” Nowhere is this point clearer than in the symbiosis in recent decades between Western corporations and the Communist elite in China. The West offers capital and much-needed technology, while China’s rulers supply a vast, captive, hard-working, low-paid and unprotected labor force. Western politicians, as if trying to justify the unholy collusion, for years argued that rising living standards in China would produce a middle class who would demand freedom and democracy. It is clear by now that that has not happened. The Chinese elite, now far wealthier than before and as in control as ever, can laugh up its sleeve at the Westerners and their visions of inevitable democracy. Instead the West’s own hard-won democracy has become vulnerable.
But does the West know it? Look at Hong Kong. Courageous protesters have persisted for more than six months in confronting the world’s mightiest dictatorship, a regime with a record of ironclad rejection of both reason and compromise when it deals with protesters or rivals. Hong Kong’s young democrats have looked for support from the world’s democracies. They stand at today’s edge of what may well be the greatest confrontation of the 21st century. Can the Western world see that helping them is not charity but self-defense?