Two years ago, I led a group of sixteen members of Drake University’s Ray Society – a continuing education program for seniors – on a three-week trip to China. Our last stop was the beautiful and vibrant port city of Hong Kong. A highlight of our tour was a visit to Hong Kong’s new Legislative Council building.
Our escort was former legislator Cyd Ho, a long-time leader of the city’s pro-democracy movement. Cyd spoke eloquently about the challenges facing Hong Kongers as Beijing increasingly narrowed the autonomy promised to the city as part of the 1997 handover from Britain to China. Cyd was troubled by these pressures, but determined and hopeful that the city she loved would succeed in defending its civil liberties, rule of law and democratic culture.
Today, Cyd Ho is among more than a dozen long-time pro-democracy politicians and activists awaiting trial on charges of attending an illegal demonstration – one that attracted one million participants – in August, 2019. The Legislative Council building is closed, having been torn asunder by protesters last summer.
The city itself is reeling. Much of 2019 was consumed with massive and sometimes violent demonstrations against a feared extradition law. Despite Hong Kong’s successful containment of the coronavirus, its economy has nevertheless taken a big hit.
Now China’s Communist Party is on the cusp of unilaterally imposing a so-called national security law upon Hong Kong, one so vague and sweeping that ordinary acts of political speech or protest could result in arrest.
How should the United States respond? Back on November 27, 2019, President Donald Trump signed the bipartisan Hong Kong and Democracy Act, passed by Congress in response to calls from Hong Kong activists.
The Act directs the State Department to annually assess whether Hong Kong continues to enjoy local autonomy from Beijing. Should the Secretary of State conclude that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous, the Act empowers the President to withdraw special privileges the United States extends to Hong Kong with respect to trade, technology and other matters.
In response to pending passage of the above-mentioned national security law, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has declared that the United States no longer recognizes Hong Kong as autonomous.
In other words, the Human Rights and Democracy Act failed to dissuade Beijing from further encroaching upon Hong Kong’s dwindling freedoms. Xi Jinping is prepared to accept international condemnation and even the loss Hong Kong’s significant role as a financial intermediary between China and the world in order to avert the threat that political instability may spread from Hong Kong to the mainland.
The Human Rights and Democracy Act was from the start a flawed vehicle for assisting Hong Kong’s beleaguered pro-democracy movement. By invoking U.S. intervention, Hong Kong democracy activists heightened erroneous Chinese perceptions that the protests were foreign-controlled. The American flags often spotted at demonstrators only deepened such perceptions. For many Chinese, the “Free Hong Kong” slogan combined with appeals for Western help are justification enough for the new law’s prohibitions on treason and sedition.
Moreover, if the sanctions allowed under the Act are fully implemented, then the already significant trickle of multinational firms making plans to exit Hong Kong will expand into a mighty stream. This will no doubt hurt China, in some degree, but the chief losers will be the Hong Kong people, whose jobs will disappear and incomes will shrink.
The goal, it must be remembered, is not to assist Beijing in placing the final nail in the coffin of Hong Kong’s autonomy, but to increase the costs to Beijing for actions that further erode the limited but still significant rights that remain to Hong Kongers.
The modest leverage the U.S. possesses should focus on how the new law is implemented. Beijing could use it sparingly and with restraint, or not. Rather than withdrawing all of Hong Kong’s special privileges at once, the U.S. should take selective and targeted actions designed to encourage restraint on Beijing’s part. This means gradually ratcheting up sanctions on responsible individuals and entities involved with serious infringements on civil liberties while avoiding measures that unintentionally inflict pain on ordinary people.
The Hong Kong of today is not the Hong Kong that I and my travel companions experienced as recently as two years ago. The coming months will bring more turmoil as the Hong Kong people seek to preserve those rights still left to them. As Americans, our ability to affect events is limited. Above all, however, we should make sure that, out of a desire to help, we do not make things worse.
David Skidmore is a Professor of Political Science at Drake University. He spent the 2010-11 academic year as at Fulbright Scholar in Hong Kong.