Two million people took to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday — nearly one-third of the population of this vibrant and prosperous city — to protest not just the now-tabled extradition law but to defend their way of life against the steady encroachment of mainland China.
Many of the protesters are too young to remember the hand-over from the United Kingdom 22 years ago that created the “one country, two systems” policy that was supposed to guarantee Hong Kong’s many freedoms until 2047. But they were not too young to face down the tear gas, rubber bullets. and water cannons that greeted the protest that grew and grew until it filled the streets of the city’s center, within earshot of its legislature.
The law at issue would have allowed the extradition of criminal suspects to the mainland — a thought that rightfully has struck fear in the hearts of Hong Kong’s residents. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who is ultimately answerable to Beijing, suspended the law in the wake of the protests and apologized for any miscommunication, but has not committed to permanently withdrawing it. Many of the protesters are now demanding her resignation.
Beijing’s response has been to censor any mention of the protests on mainland media. The meaning is clear: The contagion of Hong Kong’s democratic ways is to be contained at all costs.
In addition to the impact on the people of the city, what happens next also has global business ramifications. Tens of billions of dollars of US investments flow into Hong Kong, and 1,300 US firms operate in the city because they perceive its legal system as fair and independent from China. The territory’s status as a world financial center could take a hit if that independence is compromised.
And what has this president, who purports to be so very tough on China, had to say about Hong Kong? Well, we’re still waiting for that.
Donald Trump has maintained a certain consistency on the issue of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations. Back in 2014, at the height of the 79-day occupation of the city center that became the Umbrella Movement, then-private citizen Trump tweeted, “President Obama should stay out of the Hong Kong protests, we have enough problems in our own country!”
At least Congress is not asleep at the switch, preparing for the worst as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and members of both parties come forward to defend and applaud the demonstrators.
Among those stepping up with legislation is US Representative Jim McGovern, the Worcester Democrat, who along with Representative Chris Smith, Republican of New Jersey, and Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, are sponsoring the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.
“It is in everyone’s interest that Hong Kong remain a free and prosperous bridge between China and the world,” McGovern said in a statement. “But if Beijing intends to force Hong Kong into becoming just another mainland Chinese city under authoritarian rule, we must reevaluate whether Hong Kong warrants the special status granted under U.S. law.”
The bill would require an annual assessment of Hong Kong’s political autonomy by the State Department to justify its special trade status with the United States. It would also make clear that residents of Hong Kong could not be denied a visa as a result of their nonviolent protest activities on behalf of rule of law and human rights there.
Hong Kong’s leadership must know that if it ignores the protests and goes ahead with the extradition plan, there will be consequences from the United States — the silence coming from the White House notwithstanding. The bill filed by McGovern and Rubio will send that message now and into the future.