Since March 2019, Hong Kong has confronted the greatest challenge to its relatively free and open civil society since it was transferred from British to Chinese rule in 1997. In incidents spanning more than a year, local police faced off against enormous crowds of young demonstrators fighting a losing battle to maintain the city’s autonomy within the People’s Republic of China. Using batons and more than 10,000 canisters of tear gas, officers crushed the protest movement in 2020, but the repression has continued: By February 2021, more than 10,000 Hong Kongers had been arrested in connection with these demonstrations, and over a quarter of those had been prosecuted, while tens of thousands more had sought asylum in Britain, Canada, or Australia.
For Promise Li, a young member of the Democratic Socialists of America born in Hong Kong, China’s crackdown was personal. “I have contacts and friends who are either imprisoned or under threat right now,” said Li, a cofounder of the Lausan Collective, which runs a site highlighting left-wing activist voices in Hong Kong. During the unrest, Li proposed that DSA’s International Committee put out a statement condemning the shuttering of Hong Kong’s largest independent labor organization. But the effort was rejected after a straw poll spanning the IC’s subcommittees. According to Anlin Wang, an American-born Chinese DSA member and cochair of the Asia and Oceania subcommittee, there was an overwhelming three-to-one consensus against saying anything. “We tried our hardest to make sure that this was as maximally democratic as possible,” said Wang. “I think there are strong arguments on both sides.”
To Li, the incident reflects the influence within the DSA of “tankies,” a derogatory Cold War–era term for defenders of authoritarian communist regimes, which is often used now to call someone a China apologist. “There’s a big group of people who aren’t exactly tankies but see the tankie side as equally valid and try to preserve the unity of the left,” Li said. For his part, Wang acknowledges that such views circulate on Twitter, but he said he’s never seen them in his subcommittee Slack. “When we started the subcommittee, I was very committed to making sure that it didn’t devolve constantly into ideological fights where one side gets called ‘tankies’ and the other side gets called ‘liberal sellouts,’” Wang said.
This might all seem like inside baseball, and the DSA is riven by disagreements over many topics. But it serves as a microcosm of an unresolved debate on the left that carries global implications, not only for human rights but for the climate, labor, and questions of war and peace. With 1.4 billion people and a gross national product that by some measures now exceeds that of the United States, China is seen by Washington’s foreign policy “Blob” as the first true threat to US global hegemony since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Tensions between Washington and Beijing have been increasing on every front—military, economic, diplomatic, cultural—as observers across the ideological spectrum warn of a new Cold War that could reshape the world. President Joe Biden has characterized the confrontation with China as a battle between autocracy and democracy and is carrying out a strategic pivot to Asia—quietly boosting the US troop presence in Taiwan, announcing a new defense pact with the United Kingdom and Australia, and justifying his ambitious domestic economic proposals as part of “a competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century.” If the US left hopes to have any influence over this looming conflict, either via the Democratic Party or via non-electoral action, it will have to figure out a consistent stance on China.