How the U.S. Can Help Curb Beijing's Suppression of Freedom in Hong Kong

Getty Images

Since 1992, even before the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, U.S. policy has been based on the premise that Beijing's Communist leaders value Hong Kong's autonomy. The theory was that Beijing would not want to damage Hong Kong and so could be relied upon not to undermine Hong Kong's freedoms. Accordingly, under U.S. law the president is authorized to respond to erosion of the territory's autonomy by withdrawing separate treatment in some areas of U.S. law. It was a step no president wanted to take because it punished the victims rather than the perpetrators.

New legislation offered by Senators Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio would address the weakness in the law by targeting officials responsible for suppressing freedom in Hong Kong with visa bans and asset freezes. Congress should act as soon as possible to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, especially in light of Beijing's latest intervention.

On November 7, Beijing blocked two elected politicians from taking their seats in the legislature. They, and a handful of other young democrats who emerged from the Umbrella movement protests of 2014, were voted into office in September. At swearing-in ceremonies on October 12, two of the politicians modified their oath of office with obscene and derogatory language and held up a banner reading "Hong Kong is not China." Beijing used the episode as the pretext to declare the oaths invalid.

In the United States, much of the criticism of Beijing's unseating of the politicians has taken the line that China is undermining its own interests by stoking discontent and damaging Hong Kong's economy. It's certainly true that China relies on Hong Kong as a financial center. The Party prefers to get its way in Hong Kong, and elsewhere, without the use of force whenever possible. Beijing's Communist Party also has a competing—and overriding—interest in control. For Beijing, "autonomy" has little to do with local people running their own affairs. Democrats are by definition threatening because the Party defines patriotism as love of the Party, not of the country.

Beijing is alarmed by the new generation democrats who speak frankly about the illegitimacy of the Basic Law and the return of Hong Kong to Chinese Communist rule without the consent of its people. They note that even Beijing's bogus promises expire in 2047.

Supporters of Hong Kong's rights and freedoms wanted to believe that autonomy could work. We continually pressed for Beijing to live up to promises despite obvious loopholes that let Beijing keep control over the chief executive, the legislature, and interpretation of the Basic Law. Not to mention constant smears and propaganda about Hong Kong's democrats as subversive "black hands" and lackeys of the United States. If passed, the Cotton-Rubio legislation will reconcile the contradiction in U.S. policy by imposing consequences on officials in mainland China or Hong Kong who have thwarted the rule of law, democracy, and civil liberties.

The new bill also has implications for China's seizure of dissidents and refugees in foreign countries. The bill specifically identifies for sanctions officials involved in a case that sent a chill through Hong Kong over the past year. In late 2015 and early 2016, mainland security agents kidnapped five men affiliated with a Hong Kong bookstore. One, a Swedish citizen, was abducted from his home in Thailand. Another, Lee Bo is a British citizen whom the U.K. government believes was taken from Hong Kong against his will. Congress should expand the provision to include officials—from China or any country—who assist in the abduction of Chinese dissidents and refugees from other countries. Until there is a price to pay for this behavior in Hong Kong, and around the world, it will continue.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More