As the crisis in Hong Kong deepens, many Americans are asking: Should the United States intervene and stand by Hong Kong protesters? How can the United States effectively intervene without committing its military and resources to another long, expensive, and futile nation-building effort?
Before answering these questions, we should establish several key understandings about Hong Kong. Since the 1997 handover, Beijing exercises sovereignty over Hong Kong. But Hong Kong is different from every other Chinese city.
“The One Country, Two Systems” agreement signed by both the U.K. and China when the former stopped ruling Hong Kong stated that while China is in charge of Hong Kong’s defense and foreign policy, Hong Kong’s social and economic systems should remain unchanged, and Hong Kong “will be vested with executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication.”
As a separate customs territory and economic entity from the rest of China, Hong Kong is able to enter international agreements, join international organizations, maintain its own currency and foreign reserves, and issue its own travel documents. The extradition bill Hong Kong authorities have pushed at China’s behest will damage Hong Kong’s independent judicial system and endanger Hong Kongers’ political freedom.
Why the United States Should Back Hong Kong
The United States should intervene, for at least four reasons. First, the United States has significant economic interests in Hong Kong. According to the U.S. State Department, “There are more than 1,300 U.S. firms, including 726 regional operations, and approximately 85,000 American residents in Hong Kong.”
Data from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative shows that Hong Kong alone was the United States’s 10th-largest export market, and the United States enjoys a trade surplus of $33.8 billion with the city. Hong Kong also received more than $80 billion in U.S. foreign direct investment as of 2017. Thus, any effort to maintain the city’s free-market economic system is good for America and many Americans’ prosperity.
Second, a politically free Hong Kong is good for U.S. national security. Hong Kong is an active member of U.S.-led counterterrorism efforts and plays an important role in tracking and cutting off funding for criminal and terrorist organizations and curtailing money laundering . The city also has long served as a window for outsiders to peek into the rest of China. Historically, the free access to the city enabled the West to gather information and intelligence about China.
U.S. Navy warships used to make regular port calls in Hong Kong, sometimes averaging 60-70 visits annually before 1997. As recently as this week, China denied U.S. Navy port visits to the city occasionally as a punishment for what it calls the United States meddling with China’s internal affairs. As Hong Kong’s political climate worsens, the U.S. Navy may lose its access to the city more regularly or even indefinitely. Therefore, helping Hong Kong maintain its political freedom and independent judicial system is important to our national security.
Third, the U.S. and China are engaging in a strategic competition. The U.S.-led liberal world order has maintained peace and prosperity for most of the world for seven decades since the end of World War II. In 1989, the United States and Western powers gave the Chinese government a pass after its brutal crackdown on a pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square, hoping continued economic engagement would make China more democratic. In the last three decades, however, China has become more authoritarian, more powerful, and has found more ways to challenge the United States and cause serious harm worldwide.
Especially under President Xi Jinping, China has greatly expanded its political and economic influence and military presence around the world, aiming to replace the liberal world order with an authoritarian model with Chinese characteristics. No country other than the United States has the economic and military power to push back.
If the United States does nothing and just lets China crack down on Hong Kong like another Tiananmen, countries around the world will read this as a definite win for China, and a defeat for the United States and the post-World War II liberal order. We will see more countries, even some of our allies, fall into China’s orbit, which won’t be good for U.S. security and prosperity.
Last but not least, the United States should intervene and stand by Hong Kong protesters for a moral reason. Since its founding, the United States has served the unique role of being “the last best hope of earth,” in the words of Abraham Lincoln, and “a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere,” according to Ronald Reagan.
This is why in 1989, students erected a Chinese version of Lady Liberty in Tiananmen Square and read out loud “The Declaration of Independence.” This is also why Hong Kong protesters were seen waving American flags and singing the American national anthem.
How the United States Can Help
Trump has avoided criticizing China and hasn’t offered any verbal support to Hong Kongers in the last few months. But his dancing around the issue has done nothing to persuade Xi to sign a trade deal. Instead, China blames the United States as a black hand behind the protests, and even doxed the names of a U.S. diplomat’s husband and children after she met several Hong Kong protesters.
The United States has a moral responsibility to extend a helping hand to anyone who seeks freedom and is up against the iron fist of tyranny. Given the city’s unique status, the United States can help freedom-seeking Hong Kongers in three ways.
The 1992 United States-Hong Kong Policy Act obligates the United States to “promote Hong Kong’s prosperity, autonomy, and way of life.” Hong Kong’s past autonomy enables it to enjoy special economic treatment from the United States.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland introduced a bill in June, titled “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act,” requiring “the U.S. Secretary of State to issue an annual certification of Hong Kong’s autonomy to justify special treatment under the U.S. Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992.” It also requires the U.S. president to “identify persons responsible for the abduction of several booksellers and other individuals from Hong Kong and subject them to U.S. sanctions.” Congress needs to pass this bill and send it to President Trump for signature.
Another way to intervene is to use the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the United States to “impose visa bans and targeted sanctions on individuals anywhere in the world responsible for committing human rights violations or acts of significant corruption.” If the Trump administration signals it will use the Global Magnitsky Act to freeze assets and prevent travel of anyone who committed human rights violations in Hong Kong, be it government officials, police, and military officers, they may think twice before the next violent crackdown because many of them have foreign bank accounts and families living abroad.
The third way the United States can help is for the Trump administration to designate a special process to speed up the application and approval process for any Hong Kongers seeking political asylum in the United States. Hong Kongers are well-educated, they’re well-versed in democracy, most speak English, and they want freedom. They would be a good addition to our great nation.
Hong Kongers are fighting for something we Americans know very well: freedom and the right to self-determination. We can and should help them.