Law and Order in lieu of Civil Liberties: China and the U.S.
On June 1st, President Donald Trump scheduled an address to brief the nation on his latest efforts to quell riots after the murder of George Floyd a week earlier. Protests have erupted as people have taken to the streets to express their contempt for recent acts of police brutality that have led to the deaths of several African American citizens. Citing the Insurrection Act of 1807, a law that has largely become a piece of legal history, he assumed the role of president of “law and order”. In his eight minute remarks, he declared his plan to send “thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults, and wanton destruction of property.” This law allows for the President to deploy federal troops in attempts to suppress insurrection or acts that foment rebellion and civil disorder upon request from state and municipal leaders.
Shortly prior to the briefing, CNN aired live coverage of National Guard officers along with mounted park police dispersing peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square, a short walk away from where the President delivered his speech in the White House Rose Garden. Officers used rubber bullets and tear gas to drive protesters out of the park, creating space for a post-speech photo op for the President in front of a boarded up St. John’s church. What is perhaps most perplexing is the fact that Trump proclaimed himself as an “ally of all peaceful protesters” in the introduction of his address despite the altercations that occurred moments before.
About two weeks earlier, another world leader was thrown into the spotlight on account of overextending authority and disrupting international order-- China’s President Xi Jinping. Reports surfaced in late May of China’s attempts to implement a new national security law in Hong Kong in response to the pro-democracy protests that took place in 2019. Although the specifics of the law have yet to be released, early reports claim that it would ban secession, foreign interference, terrorism, and any other forms of sedition or rebellion in the Hong Kong region. Despite the one country-two systems agreement between the mainland and Hong Kong that has existed since 1997, this law would subvert Hong Kong’s authority and undermine any semblance of independence it has from Beijing. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also recently declared that Hong Kong no longer retained a high degree of autonomy from China due to the overreaching security legislation.
Consequently, a new wave of pro-democracy protests racked Hong Kong streets, as thousands of Hong Kong citizens demonstrated their discontent with the proposed security law. Similarly to Washington D.C., police were dispatched to quell riots, using tear gas and water cannons to break up large demonstrations. Former Hong Kong governor, Chris Patten, commented on the new law, calling President Xi’s crackdown on Hong Kong “thuggish”, and stated that it could potentially stifle its ability to continue being a “premier international financial hub in Asia.”
Both of these leaders have shown a similar weakness in the face of dissent and civil unrest. As protests threaten their relative popularity and international image, Xi and Trump have resorted to physical strength and public projections of confidence to avoid appearing timid. Earlier in the day prior to his national address on June 1st, Trump held a conference call with all fifty U.S. governors. In it, he called for the domination of protesters through aggressive means and repeatedly scolded several governors for projecting a weak international image. Additionally, according to a recent New York Times article, President Xi and his cohorts have begun an aggressive campaign that presents China more positively despite constant backlash and international criticism.
A pattern that has emerged over the last several weeks is that these respective leaders value their respective images and reputations more than the safety and freedoms of citizens. In their eyes, protests no longer symbolize comradery and collective demonstrations of civil liberties, but rather the weakness of national leaders. Instead of approaching these tenuous situations with calming messages that unite people, these leaders have elected to display force and remain headstrong in their pursuits of law and order. Within the coming months, these two leaders will have to maneuver strategically as internal pressure from citizens will be at odds with their desires to maintain images of unyielding strength and confidence. As Trump hopes for re-election come November, and as Xi continues to extend his absolute authority over China and the Communist Party, how they each decide to mitigate the effects of the civil unrest, especially in conjunction with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, will likely be consequential to their respective political futures.