Hong Kong protesters are demanding action from the US. Liam Glen writes on the strengths and limitations of the proposed Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.
It was an unusual sight in Hong Kong on September 8. Thousands of protestors waving American flags marched to the city’s US Consulate.
In a rare move for protestors abroad, they came to lobby for federal legislation. Specifically, they called on the US Congress to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019. The bipartisan bill upholds the protestors’ demands for democracy and autonomy in the city.
They had good reason to bring attention to the proposal. Unlike many resolutions affirming human rights, this bill has an actual enforcement mechanism. But any hope that a single vote by the US Congress can end the troubles in Hong Kong is severely misguided.
Leveraging Trade Relations
The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act is an amendment to the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992. Written in preparation of China’s annexation of Hong Kong in 1997, it allows the US government to put looser trade restrictions on the city than the rest of the country.
This is justified by the “one country, two systems” policy. Unlike the rest of the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong is allowed a relatively free market and a quasi-democratic regional government.
But the system is not working as promised. Hongkongers are currently taking to the street to protest the central government’s continual interference in their affairs. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act accounts for this.
It mandates that the State Department make an annual report on Hong Kong’s autonomy and adherence to basic rights. If it is found lacking, its special trade status may be revoked. The US would treat imports and exports from Hong Kong with the same restrictions as those from the rest of China.
This would be a blow to the government in Beijing. The trading hub of Hong Kong is a key part of the country’s economy.
It would also put pressure on the Hong Kong regional government. This is especially true given the unusual nature of the city’s Legislative Council. 40 of the 70 lawmakers are elected by the people, while 30 come from “special constituencies” dominated by big business.
While the majority of the people typically vote for pro-democracy parties, the special constituencies churn out pro-Beijing lawmakers with the hope of benefiting from crony capitalism. The threat of disruption to US trade, however, would give them an incentive to also look out for the city’s constitution.
Of course, if Hong Kong’s trading status was revoked, the effects would be far-reaching. There is no doubt that the people of Hong Kong themselves would be among the foremost victims. Punishment for the sake of punishment is never a sound policy. But deterrence can often be necessary.
Other parts of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act lay out a system for sanctioning those responsible for human rights violations in the city and mandate that Hongkongers who were arrested during nonviolent protests should not be impeded from receiving US visas.
Revolution Comes from Within
So long as congressional leaders see the bill as important enough to put it to a vote, it should have no trouble passing. Support for Hong Kong protestors is strong across the political spectrum. The act’s cosponsors range from House Freedom Caucus Chair Mark Meadows to progressives like Ayanna Pressley.
Some protestors certainly had high hopes for the act. Multiple signs in Hong Kong urged the US to “liberate Hong Kong.” But if the bill does pass, it will hardly be the end of the city’s struggles.
As warned in the Hong Kong Free Press, any perception of American interference could easily backfire on the protesters. In addition, the threat of losing out on American trade would pressure authorities, but it will not single-handedly turn them into democrats.
Social movements thrive when they have a wide base of support. Support from foreign governments matters to the extent that it encourages or discourages participation. Ultimately, major change in Hong Kong depends on the protesters’ own ability to hold their government accountable.