At first glance, the intensifying protests in Hong Kong would appear to have little in common with Beijing’s escalating trade war with the United States. The trade dispute is about controversial Chinese economic policies that Washington believes damage both U.S. companies and the international trading system. The confrontation in Hong Kong is between the autocratic Chinese Communist Party and citizens who fear for their much-cherished civil liberties.
Yet both have similar roots, deep within Beijing’s view of the world: Fixated on promoting their own power, Chinese leaders struggle to accommodate the interests of others. They often speak of “win-win” cooperation that benefits all parties, but their approach to the world around them is, in the end, zero-sum.
“The Chinese do not look to themselves to explain mistakes or the deteriorating strategic environment,” Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me. “They generally don’t have a sense that they need to engage in self-reflection. They tend to blame the outside world.”
The consequences of this were all too obvious today. After a weekend of marches and tear gas on the streets of Hong Kong, protesters flooded the city’s busy international airport, prompting the authorities to ground all departing flights. How has this financial hub and shopping haven descended into chaos? Tone-deaf Chinese policy. The Communist Party and its local loyalists manage to routinely inflame opposition in the former British colony with what many Hong Kong residents see as persistent attempts to breach the “one country, two systems” formula that ensures their freedoms.