The passage of a repressive law by China has showcased their growing international influence and the weakening of the United States on the world stage. On June 30, China’s government passed a highly repressive national security law aimed at cracking down on anti-government sentiment in Hong Kong. This law follows a year of massive anti-government demonstrations against the growing control that mainland China is exerting over Hong Kong, which is supposed to be semi-autonomous.

The new Chinese security law comes with harsh penalties including possible life in prison for grave damage of government buildings and terrorism charges for anyone who sabotages transport and causes significant damage to property. Within days of the law going into effect, pro-democracy books were being pulled off the shelves and a man was arrested for having a pro-independence flag.

The law also allows for residents of Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China in certain cases, where they would face a secretive and non-impartial legal system. This will occur if it is deemed a “national security case” or a complex case — these broad definitions will likely allow the Chinese government to prosecute anti-government activists through sham trials in mainland China. This directly contrasts the current legal system in Hong Kong, which ensures a fair and transparent trial. 

Following the passage of this law, there was a vote at the United Nations Human Rights Council to condemn this law. The list of which countries voted not to condemn China was a disturbing reminder of the growing influence of China, especially in Asia and Africa. China has used its wealth to invest in developing nations. However, this investment does not come without strings. Over 40 of the countries that voted not to condemn the law have also signed onto China’s Belt and Road Infrastructure project, in which China lends money to countries to build roads and shipping infrastructure with the hopes of creating interconnected worldwide trade routes for Chinese use. 

China is known to lend money to developing countries, especially in Africa. In 2018, it was reported that 20 percent of African governments' external debt was owed to China. Many of these nations have been unable to repay their debts, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has led to fears that counties may feel more and more indebted to China and will be forced to support the country’s egregious policies. 

The growing international power of China, especially in Africa, has also been aided by the U.S.'s steady withdrawal from the international stage. Over the past few years, the Trump administration has promoted isolationist policies under the guise of America first. These policies range from slashing the United Nations budget to withdrawing from the Paris climate accord and instituting tariffs on our allies, including Canada, Japan and the European Union. 

The Trump administration has also refused to be a leader at the United Nations. The U.S. is not a member of the UN Human Rights Council, which was the body that voted on the resolution to condemn China. The U.S., under orders from the Trump administration, withdrew from the council after a disagreement about which other countries were allowed to join the council. While I admit that is absurd that countries such as Saudi Arabia are on this council, that does not mean that the U.S. should have withdrawn. It is always better to have a seat at the table and use the power and influence of the U.S. to help advocate for democratic values. 

The move towards isolationism by the Trump administration has helped to create a vacuum that countries such as China and Russia are more than happy to fill. The growing sphere of influence of China and Russia in developing countries is something that should concern all of us. 

The events of the past few months have put issues of justice, freedom and equality at the forefront of our national conversation. As we seek to emphasize these values, we must remember to look beyond our borders. Although these issues are oceans away from campus, we cannot turn a blind eye. The blatant suppression of free speech and expression in Hong Kong is unacceptable and must be opposed at all costs. We must also recognize the plight of countries that are losing their autonomy to China. As we look to 2020, we must support candidates who understand the importance of international relations and recognize the power of the U.S. to use our influence to promote the values of freedom and democracy around the world. 

Isabelle Schindler can be reached at ischind@umich.edu

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