Hong Kong’s pro-democracy voters just sent China’s rulers — and the world — a message. The question is: Will President Trump listen?
Hanging in the balance is the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, passed unanimously last week in the US Senate and with only one dissenting vote in the House. Trump has threatened to veto the bill lest it disrupt a trade deal with the mainland — and his plans for a big election-year boost for farmers.
The bipartisan legislation would give the United States the power to use sanctions and its review of Hong Kong’s preferred-trade status to prevent and punish human rights abuses — including unjust crackdowns on pro-democracy protests such as those that have engulfed the territory since last June.
Turnout for Hong Kong’s district council elections last weekend topped 71 percent or 2.9 million people, more than double the 1.4 million who turned out in 2015. Like local elections everywhere, Hong Kong’s have long turned on issues like trash collection and traffic lights. But this year, the motivating factor was democracy itself, amid near-daily protests, clashes with police, and the constant threat that Beijing will continue its assault on the freedoms in this Chinese territory — which remained under British rule until 1997 — has long enjoyed.
Hong Kong’s protests began with a controversial proposal to allow the extradition to mainland China of those suspected of crimes — something that could have opened the way to political prosecutions. The proposal has since been withdrawn, but the threat to democracy and the often brutal police response to demonstrations continues.
Pro-democracy parties claimed at least 389 of 452 seats in the recent election, while Beijing’s affiliates will hold just 58 — a stunning loss from the 300 seats it held. Among those defeated was the pro-Beijing Junius Ho, who has been accused of encouraging attacks on demonstrators.
The electoral victory, however sweet, will not eradicate the kind of mindset displayed by people like Ho and his masters in Beijing. And that makes it all the more important that the United States speak loudly and clearly in defense of democracy in this threatened Chinese outpost.
Congress did just that in passing the Hong Kong human rights bill, which would mandate sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials involved in serious human rights abuses. It would also require an annual State Department review for Hong Kong to retain its most-favored nation trade status. (Foreign ministers in Britain have been weighing similar sanctions against officials.)
In a recent interview with “Fox & Friends,” the president exhibited his usual doublespeak, which included the possibility of a veto.
“We have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi [Jinping],” Trump said. “He’s a friend of mine. He’s an incredible guy. . . . But I’d like to see them work it out. Okay? We have to see and work it out. . . . I stand with all of the things that we want to do, but we also are in the process of making the largest trade deal in history. And if we could do that, that would be great.”
The fact that the bill passed with veto-proof margins should be a hint that Trump ought to come down not just on the side of pro-democracy forces but also on the right side of history.
The man who authored “The Art of the Deal” surely knows Chinese trade negotiators aren’t naïfs, and they are abundantly aware of the American electoral calendar. They also know weakness when they see it.
This is no time for Trump’s on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand narrative. When it comes to human rights and democratic values, there is no “on the other hand.” There is only what’s right.