By Laura Kelly
The fight for Hong Kong’s autonomy faces a grim future on the 25th anniversary of the territory’s handover back to China from the United Kingdom.
What began on July 1, 1997, as a bold experiment seeking to bring the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) more toward Western, liberal democracies has instead served as a hard lesson in Beijing’s single-minded pursuit of total control.
There are few options for President Biden and Congress to support reversing Beijing’s rollbacks on the democratic freedoms, capitalist economy and rule of law in Hong Kong.
Its supporters urge political asylum for opposition figures and mourn the dimming of the territory’s once bright light as a vibrant, cosmopolitan center of culture and business that bridged the divide between China and the West.
“It should be a warning to everyone around the world that a city of 7.5 million people who have enjoyed all the rights and autonomy that we take for granted globally … can be stripped away and taken away overnight,” said Samuel Chu, president of the Campaign for Hong Kong.
“This crackdown doesn’t stop at the Chinese border or the borders of Hong Kong,” he added.
Beijing’s violations of Hong Kong’s independence, which was supposed to stand for 50 years, also serve as a stark warning of the threats facing Taiwan.
Top U.S. intelligence officials have said that Beijing’s goal is to undermine Taiwan through diplomatic and economic pressure — but that it is also weighing a military invasion as the island hardens its political and military defenses, which are backed by Washington.
Jacob Stokes, fellow for the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, said that China’s breach of “one country, two systems” for Hong Kong has sharpened the risks facing Taiwan and its democratic government.
The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which laid the groundwork for Hong Kong’s handover from the U.K. to China 13 years later, stated that Beijing would treat the territory as a special administrative region — part of the larger country of China, but with its own separate, democratic system that was developed over a century and a half of British colonial rule.
“‘One country, two systems’ eroded, sort of, like one goes bankrupt, a little bit at a time and then all at once,” Stokes said.
“It’s really sharpened a set of views, not just in Hong Kong, of course, but in Taiwan too, about what exactly closer political, legal, economic, technological integration with China would look like and has really made the choice quite stark.”
The Biden administration has elevated the Chinese Communist government as one the greatest security challenges facing the U.S. in the 21st century. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has inhibited the administration from focusing more strongly on countering Beijing.
In Congress, Democrats and Republicans are united on the need to confront China but have stalled in advancing landmark legislation aimed at setting up the U.S. to counter the nation — militarily, technologically, economically and diplomatically — for generations.
“Let’s not wait any longer. Send it to my desk. I’ll sign it,” Biden said in his State of the Union address to Congress this year.
House and Senate lawmakers from both parties have been meeting since April to hammer out bipartisan text for the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA).
On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he would block advancing the USICA as long as Democrats were pursuing their broad economic legislation without GOP buy-in.
“Let me be perfectly clear: there will be no bipartisan USICA as long as Democrats are pursuing a partisan reconciliation bill,” McConnell tweeted.
Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), a co-sponsor of the first USICA that cleared the Senate in 2021, called for passing bipartisan text “without any further delays” in a statement to The Hill.
“When Beijing took over Hong Kong and crushed the brave Hong Kongers rising up to defend their democracy, it served as a wake-up call to the world that we must take the Chinese Communist Party at their word when they discuss their ambitions,” Young said.
“Like Hong Kong, destroying Taiwan’s independence is not theoretical or academic, but something that Beijing is determined to accomplish. We must use this occasion to express our resolve that this cannot occur.”
Provisions related to Hong Kong in draft text of a House bill include prohibitions on certain exports to the territory, funds to promote democracy, monitoring of China’s interference in Hong Kong’s trade and industrial policies and providing visas for Hong Kong dissidents who are targets of the Chinese government.
“Hong Kong really represents the most potent and promising base of resistance to the Communist regime in China,” Chu said.
“It means preserving whatever memory, talent and people that we can, either through supporting them in an overseas diaspora or supporting what they’re doing underground.”
The CCP has accelerated its crackdown on Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms and institutions most prominently since 2019, installing pro-Beijing politicians in the territory and passing a National Security Law (NSL) that criminalized vague offenses of terrorism, secession and subversion with the maximum penalty, going as far as life in prison.
More than 10,000 people were arrested when protesting the NSL at that time, with more than 2,300 charged for crimes under the law and 200 convicted, as documented in a report by the Congressional Research Service that was published in March.
“The HKSAR [Hong Kong Special Administrative Region] increasingly seems to be wielding the NSL as an instrument of political repression, and has censored pro-democracy media outlets and arrested their leadership and senior editorial staff,” the report states.
Biden has so far maintained former President Trump’s 2020 executive order to suspend Hong Kong’s special status as separate from Beijing as it relates to U.S. policy on trade, politics and diplomacy.
The U.S. has also, since 2020, imposed visa and economic sanctions on more than two-dozen Hong Kong and Chinese officials determined to be responsible for undermining the territory’s democracy, autonomy and loss of rights for Hong Kong residents.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling for sustained U.S. focus on condemning China’s subversion of Hong Kong and supporting its democratic activists.
But such action faces a steep uphill battle with competing security priorities such as Russia’s war in Ukraine, threats from Iran over its nuclear weapons ambitions, humanitarian crises across the world and domestic woes from inflation to political polarization on guns and abortion.
“We recognize that the task of restoring the promise of an autonomous Hong Kong requires the sustained effort by the United States and the international community to push back against the erosion of political and civil rights by Chinese and Hong Kong authorities fearful of these rights,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), chairs of the bipartisan and bicameral Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said in a statement.
Stokes, of the CNAS, said that while “a lot of the damage has already been done,” the U.S. and international community can “continue to shine a light on repression in Hong Kong.”
Chu agreed, saying that “we’re in a very low point right now, I think that nobody’s disputing that.”
“But I believe, and I think that with support, and ongoing prioritizations of Hong Kong as an issue, Hong Kong will remain that base for resistance. But they really need help right now.”