The Stars and Stripes fly at a rally in Hong Kong calling on the US to pass a human rights and democracy bill to protect the city. Photo: Twitter via RTHK

US Senator Ted Cruz has taken well-deserved flak of late for blocking a bill allowing Hongkongers to claim refugee status in the United States.

Cruz, let us remember, had been among the most outspoken in proclaiming that Americans should “stand with” Hongkongers who desire freedom and democracy. And yet on the grounds that some such Hongkongers just might be spies for Beijing, and on further grounds that any influx might help the Democratic Party undermine immigration restrictions, Cruz denies them the chance to experience the democracy and freedoms they want and Americans enjoy.

However, long before this shameful stunt, listening to Republicans made it clear that there was a contradiction brewing between what they say about other countries’ affairs and what they advocate for their own.

Take Cruz. He himself authored a Time profile of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, calling her a “signal lamp casting out China’s looming shadow, conveying to the world that Taiwan will not acquiesce to the Chinese Communist Party.”

But beyond her defiance of Beijing, which Cruz wholeheartedly supports, Tsai is a staunch proponent of LGBT rights, of environmentalism and of the sort of social safety network Cruz militantly opposes.

Other Republicans are similarly conflicted.

When Juan Guaido attempted to overthrow the leftist Nicolas Maduro regime in Caracas in early 2019, US Vice-President Mike Pence called Guaido Venezuela’s “only legitimate president.” However, outside of Pence, the only person who likely sees commonalities between Guaido and the US conservative movement is Maduro, who accused his rival of being a right-winger attempting to set up a US puppet state.

In fact, Guaido came to prominence in the Popular Will party, whose platform fits comfortably within the US Democratic Party’s. The man himself does not recoil from the “social democrat” label the way Pence most certainly would.

Like Cruz, the whole Republican Party supported the Hong Kong protest movement, placing them firmly on the side of Hong Kong’s broad-based pan-democratic, or pan-dem, bloc.

In an alternate reality where Beijing’s national-security legislation had not passed, leaving the road open for the pan-dems to capture the Hong Kong Legislative Council and pick the next chief executive, one might well have chuckled at Republicans taking credit for the pro-LGBT, pro-social welfare, pro-police oversight legislation they would likely have passed.

These kinds of tensions have been awkward enough when Republicans controlled the White House. But very soon we can expect them to criticize Joe Biden’s administration for not going far enough to support “freedom fighters” abroad – all the while hoping that Republican voters don’t discover that, in terms of values, these “freedom fighters” closely resemble Biden supporters.

In short, Republicans are wide open to charges that they only care about undermining regimes hostile to the US – rather than the people who actually take all the risks in opposing those regimes.

This tension could be resolved if the Republicans declared an end of hostilities toward the term “liberalism.”

This, after all, has historically meant “individual rights” and an opposition to more collectivist systems, including communism. In modern American discourse, however, “liberalism” has been perverted into a catch-all identified with “things Republicans oppose” – including communism.  

Defending international “liberalism” could be a way for Republicans to say they support progressive opponents of authoritarianism abroad while continuing to oppose progressivism at home. They need not even fight Democrats for the right to use the word “liberal” – as almost no Democrats proudly use it, with many now preferring “progressive.”

But defending the word “liberal” will be difficult for Republicans if they do not also rediscover what it means.

Republican presidents prior to the incumbent may have decried “liberal bias” in the news and on college campuses. But they also supported classical “liberal values” – such as free trade and free elections – and spoke highly of immigrant communities that came to America to embrace those values.

Now, the Republican Party is motoring away from classical liberal values by embracing mercantilism and making it harder for immigrants to enter the US legally.

Anyone using the label and aware of its meaning would surely struggle to justify turning away refugees seeking safety, whether from prosecution by Beijing, from Islamic extremism in the Middle East, or from gang violence in Latin America.

They would also struggle to justify defending “freedom fighters” from autocrats abroad even as they humor a president who seeks to overturn election results in the US based on unsubstantiated charges of voter fraud.

A Republican Party that didn’t shy away from the liberal label could do a lot of good.

It could continue acting as a check on progressive overreach in the US, while working with Democrats to support the rights of the individual against dictatorships abroad – rights that should surely include allowing them to live in the US.

For the Republicans and Democrats to support such causes with one voice would indicate that some all-American ideas transcend partisan differences. That is something that would benefit the deeply polarized United States right now.

However, Cruz is evidently not interested. More worryingly, nor are his Republican colleagues interested in contradicting him. Consequently, their party looks likely to distance itself further from not just the liberal label, but from classical liberalism as a whole.

That is important, for a rejection of classical liberalism undermines the American moral case in the biggest global showdown of our time. Republicans must ask themselves whether Washington’s struggle with Beijing is over values – or plain old US strategic primacy.

Rob York, program director for regional affairs at the Pacific Forum, is also a PhD candidate in Korean history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Prior to joining the Forum, he was a production editor at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and a chief editor at NK News in Seoul.