Hong Kong still needs America's help

Hong Kong’s Protests © Getty Images

Hong Kong’s Protests © Getty Images

What’s next for Hong Kong? You can bet that China’s ruler, Xi Jinping, is forming an answer to that question.

The Chinese Communist Party is smarting from a temporary setback in the troublesome city that long has been a beacon of freedom and prosperity in Asia. Tensions are still simmering in the wake of this month’s peaceful protests, which brought more than 2 million protesters — at least a quarter of Hong Kong’s population —to the city’s streets. Facing public outrage, the city government suspended an extradition bill that would have given China power to ignore Hong Kong’s rule of law. Now pro-democracy leaders are calling for further protests during the G-20.

This isn’t the first time that massive protests derailed China’s plans to whittle away Hong Kong’s autonomy. In 2003, more than half a million people marched against a bill to crack down on free speech and freedom of association, forcing its withdrawal. In 2014, the so-called “Umbrella Movement” brought more than 100,000 people to the streets in opposition to Beijing’s attempts to dictate who could stand in the city’s elections. Those protests, which I witnessed, resulted in another loss for the pro-Beijing camp.

Yet no demonstration has defeated China’s will to dominate Hong Kong. When Beijing is forced to step back, it simply advances on other fronts.

In 2010, China forced through electoral reforms that increased its power, using vague — and since-broken — promises of greater freedom to win over skeptical lawmakers and citizens. In 2016, Beijing prevented pro-democracy candidates from running in elections. In 2017, it imprisoned some of the city’s leading activists. And numerous times in recent years, communist agents have kidnapped people in Hong Kong and taken them to mainland China.

This history guarantees that Beijing will try again. It’s telling that Hong Kong’s legislature only suspended the extradition bill, rather than withdrawing it, as happened after the 2003 protests. This means the city’s legislature can bring it back up at a moment’s notice and quickly adopt it. And despite the loss of public confidence, Carrie Lam, the city's chief executive, refuses to resign. She has her job only because the Communist Party gave it to her. If the party’s leaders aren’t forcing her out, it means they still believe she can advance their agenda.

The leaders of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement are not naïve. They know their victory is incomplete. Our organization has spoken with many of them in recent days, and all of them express a similar sentiment: It’s only a matter of time before Beijing tries another approach. To a person, they also tell us that the free world isn’t doing enough to keep Hong Kong free. Sadly, they’re right.

For more than two decades, China’s rulers have undermined Hong Kong’s autonomy without facing a significant American response. Such silence cannot continue. The U.S. should use its special relationship with Hong Kong as leverage.

Since the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, our nation has given the city preferential trade, travel and economic treatment, based on the assumption that Hong Kong is separate from — and freer than — Communist China. Yet, in addition to undermining the city’s autonomy, Beijing is exploiting the preferential treatment given to Hong Kong to circumvent U.S. export controls, customs duties, sanctions, and to conduct influence and espionage operations. It also gives Beijing financial padding during the ongoing trade confrontation with the United States.

We must send a clear message to the Chinese Communist Party that Beijing’s abuse of Hong Kong will carry a high cost. Congress has advanced several bipartisan legislative initiatives to this end.

Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) have sponsored a bill amending the 1992 law to require the federal government to issue a report on China’s exploitation of U.S. laws. Leaders of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), and Congressional Victims of Communism Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) have introduced another worthy bill, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. Among other measures, it requires annual certification of Hong Kong’s autonomy to justify the special treatment afforded to Hong Kong and for those responsible for human rights violations to be sanctioned.

The United States must act — soon. Hong Kong is to China what West Berlin was to the Soviet Union: proof that communism impoverishes and freedom enriches — economically, scientifically, artistically, spiritually. Like Taiwan, it represents a better path that is possible for the Chinese people, one that doesn’t involve Beijing’s tyranny.

Hong Kong, therefore, is a mortal threat to Xi Jinping and the Communist Party. China’s rulers will continue to squeeze Hong Kong, just as the Soviet Union tried to strangle Berlin. As we have heard from the city’s pro-democracy leaders, they fear the day is coming when Beijing does to them what it did to thousands of peaceful protesters in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago, and in the nationwide crackdown that followed.

No matter what happens, Hong Kong’s citizens have made it clear to the world that they refuse to back down in defense of their freedom. It’s time for the United States to show the same courage and resolve.