Since June of 2019, the city of Hong Kong has been enveloped in massive protests against the Chinese government. The protests stemmed from a proposed bill that would allow for the transfer of fugitives back to the mainland for prosecution. However, they have morphed into a broader protest against the Chinese government. While the United States has introduced several measures in support of the Hong Kong protesters, these are at best marginal and at worst counterproductive.
When Hong Kong was returned to the Chinese government in 1997 after 156 years of British rule, it was under the condition that Hong Kong would be allowed to maintain an autonomous government with freedoms of speech, assembly, and other fundamental rights. But, only half of the Hong Kong legislature is democratically elected, and the office of Chief Executive is completely unelected. In 2015, five workers at a Hong Kong bookstore, which sold anti-government books, were kidnapped by the Chinese government and forced to confess to crimes they did not commit.
After the proposed bill was withdrawn from Hong Kong’s government, which is controlled by groups aligned with mainland China, this pattern of increasing infringement on the political rights of Hong Kongers became the focus of the protests. The movement drew international attention, with solidarity rallies and many American members of Congress expressing support.
Within the US, the most significant government action supporting the protestors was the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, signed into law in November of this year. This act requires the federal government to sanction individuals in China responsible for human rights abuses but does not punish the government itself. It also threatens to restrict trade with Hong Kong if they do not maintain autonomy.
This is counterproductive. The US is Hong Kong’s second-largest trading partner, and a restriction on Hong Kong’s trade with the US would be a significant blow to its economy. The surface-level goal of this is to incentivize people in Hong Kong to support the struggle against the mainland. However, the Chinese mainland holds much more economic power over Hong Kong than the US and makes up over half of Hong Kong’s trade. The threat of persecution or boycotts by the Chinese government provides an incentive for Hong Kong businesses to continue their support of the government that cannot be overcome by American pressure. The real effect of this bill would cause suffering to the people of Hong Kong because of forces they can’t control. While it does carry symbolic value as a show of US solidarity with Hong Kong, that value cannot outweigh the real-world suffering that trade restrictions will cause. Symbolic support of the protests would also reflect poorly on them within China by heightening the perception that they are pawns of the West instead of the independent actors.
There are few other marginal steps we can take. For example, the bill was passed in conjunction with another measure banning the sale of crowd control like tear gas to Hong Kong police, who have used excessive force against the protesters. However, even if the protests accomplish their aims temporarily, the mainland can wait for protests to die down before making another attempt at strengthening their control. There are some problems that America can’t solve, and the plight of Hong Kong may be one of those problems.