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Keeping Hong Kong Free


Published: March 23, 2021

China continues to trample on Hong Kong’s autonomy and aggressively stifle free expression and political dissent. As a result, Hong Kong’s freedom is at risk. The United States must to take a stand to defend freedom in both Hong Kong and across the globe in order to counterbalance China’s efforts.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why are people protesting in Hong Kong?
  2. Why is China heavily involved in Hong Kong?

Additional Resources

  • Read “The End of Hong Kong As We Knew It,” by Larry Diamond. Available here.
  • Read the report China’s Influence & American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance. Available here.
  • Read “China Gets Its Message to Americans but Doesn’t Want to Reciprocate,” by Larry Diamond and Orville Schell in the Wall Street Journal. Available here.
  • Watch a panel discussion on “China’s Influence & American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance.” Available here.
  • Listen to “Jaw-Jaw: How Chinese Sharp Power Takes Aim at American Democracy,” by Larry Diamond and Brad Carson. Available here.
  • In “China and the Global Challenge to Democracy: A Conversation with Larry Diamond,” Diamond discusses the Chinese Communist Party’s range of influence and interference activities. Available here.
View Transcript

On June 30th 2020,  the People’s Republic of China crossed a historic line by imposing a draconian national security bill on Hong Kong without approval from its parliament, the Legislative Council — often called LegCo.

The bill not only bans “subversion of state power” and “foreign interference”—terms expansive enough to include just about anything the Chinese Communist Party wants to punish—it also allows the PRC to establish its own “national security agencies” inside the city. Those accused could face extradition to mainland China.

In so doing, the PRC violates its international commitment to grant Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy that protects its long-cherished civil liberties and rule of law.

This is not the first time Beijing has tried to violate Hong Kong’s autonomy under the framework of “One Country, Two Systems.” In 2004, the PRC prevented Hong Kong from moving toward a fully democratically elected Legislative Council, and it rejected any timetable that would allow Hong Kong’s people to choose their Chief Executive.

The Umbrella Movement in 2014 was Hong Kong’s reaction to mainland China unilaterally freezing LegCo elections once again. The mass protests failed to reverse Beijing’s veto of democratic reform, but helped galvanize the population and made famous many student leaders — leaders who were subsequently jailed for protesting election interference.

The most recent national security bill was proposed in 2019 and led to months of protests by most of the country. Beijing waited out the protests and eventually numerous opposition leaders in Hong Kong were arrested. Now they are being convicted and sent to prison. In November, China so violated the independence of the LegCo that opposition lawmakers felt compelled to resign en masse. 

The authoritarian rulers in Beijing and Hong Kong must be made to pay a heavy price for destroying what remains of freedom in Hong Kong. The people of Hong Kong need strong moral, geopolitical, and material support from the United States and other established democracies. 

Under the terms of the 2019 Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, Congress must decide if Hong Kong is “sufficiently autonomous” to retain special status with respect to trade and access to technology. 

Under that act, the United States has already imposed targeted sanctions—travels bans and asset freezes— on more than ten individuals responsible for trampling on the rights of the Hong Kong people, such as Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.  Those sanctions should now be applied to an even wider circle of officials in Beijing and Hong Kong.

We should lobby our democratic allies—including Britain, Canada, and Australia—to join us in sanctioning key Hong Kong and Beijing officials. Revoking Hong Kong’s special trade privileges is a tougher step, since it will hurt the city’s people, but we must gradually make clear to the city’s business and financial elite that they will pay a high price for falling in line with Beijing’s commands. 

We should also do much more to help Hong Kong’s independent media and civil society organizations. This includes new digital media and advocacy efforts that may now need (as in other autocracies) to base themselves partly abroad to evade repression. 

And we should grant a special immigrant visa to anyone in Hong Kong who is at risk of repression. 

We have now entered what will be a long twilight struggle for freedom in Hong Kong. But it’s not just about Hong Kong. It’s about the future of freedom globally in an era when China is challenging norms for international human rights across the board.

We must make clear: We do not endorse Hong Kong separatism and we are not trying to “break up” China. 

Rather, we are asking the PRC’s leaders to respect their own legal and treaty commitments to Hong Kong’s autonomy, under the Basic Law and the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. 

More importantly, we are asking China to respect the hard-won rights of the people of Hong Kong—including the right to govern themselves.