Twenty years ago this month, Hong Kong embodied the hopes and dreams of an emerging liberal century. The United Kingdom handed control of the island back to China, marking the end of centuries of colonialism in East Asia. Economies were opening up across the region, as Hong Kong and the economies of the other Four Asian Tigers transformed from agricultural backwaters into post-industrial economic powerhouses thanks to economic liberalization. Even China, the largest lingering communist state, seemed to be opening up following Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s sweeping economic reforms in the 1980s. Yet two decades into the unhappy marriage of China and Hong Kong, the upstart island city has moved from being an exemplar of liberalism into a victim of China’s refusal to reform.
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Last week, Taiwan became more isolated than ever. Panama is the latest country to break relations with Taiwan, known officially as the Republic of China, and instead recognize Beijing, the People’s Republic of China, leaving the island nation only 20 countries that recognize its legitimacy. This trend is not new: The two Chinas have battled for recognition since they separated after the Second World War. Yet this holdover conflict from the Cold War really only matters today for Taiwan and mainland China. For those countries that receive economic benefits for recognizing one over the other, it is only a matter of who offers more investment, aid, and infrastructure.
This game of winning over countries with aid and infrastructure has been the norm since mainland China and Taiwan separated in the 1950s, following China’s brutal civil war. After being run out of the country by Mao Zedong’s Communist Party, the nationalist Kuomintang led by Chiang Kai-shek established their government in Taipei, declaring Taiwan to be the “real China.” The People’s Republic of China, on the other hand, sees Taiwan as a renegade province and has as its ultimate goal its reunification with the rest of China — their so-called One-China Policy. Since then, the two nations have been fighting over who is the “real” China by obtaining the recognition of other countries.
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At the end of January, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., introduced the Agricultural Export Expansion Act aimed at removing restrictions on United States agricultural exports to Cuba. Following the steps of 16 other states, Virginia also launched its Engage Cuba State Council, an initiative of the Cuba Engagement Coalition that seeks to promote trade and travel with Cuba and eventually lift the embargo.
Supporters of these initiatives believe ending the embargo will alleviate Cuban poverty while helping state economies grow. The president of Engage Cuba, James Williams, said the Agricultural Expansion Act would “increase US agricultural exports, create jobs across the country, and provide the Cuban people with high-quality American food.” While these efforts are an important step in improving American relations with the Caribbean country, Cuba also needs to reform its system of import taxation for trade liberalization to have its desired effect.
The U.S. embargo against Cuba has been controversial since it was implemented in the 1960s. Opponents of the embargo argue that restricting the population’s access to cheap foreign goods makes the country poorer and gives the government someone to blame for its widespread poverty. Proponents of the embargo believe that it is the one thing keeping the Communist Party of Cuba in check, providing justice for dissidents and keeping money out of the pockets of regime officials.
While they have valid arguments, advocates on both sides are missing an important factor: whether or not an external embargo exists, most goods will never reach the Cuban people because of a state-imposed internal embargo.
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