America Must Prevent Another Tiananmen Square and Stand for a Free Hong Kong

Anti-government protesters leave after their protest shut down the airport in Hong Kong, China, August 12, 2019. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
China, despite its pledges, is moving to consume the city and squelch protests. Congress must pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.

As protests against Communist China continue in Hong Kong, the United States may want to recall a well-known fable, “The Scorpion and the Frog.” In this tale, the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across a stream, and the frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion gives assurances, “Because if I do, I will die, too.” So the two set out across the water, with the scorpion riding on the frog’s back. But midway through the river, the scorpion stings the frog. When the frog asks why the scorpion broke his promise, the scorpion replies, “Because it’s my nature.”

Beijing has stung Hong Kong, repeatedly. It has violently broken its pledge under the framework of One Country, Two Systems, as Hong Kongers desperately try to protect their city from being consumed by China. It is now unclear whether a free Hong Kong can survive.

This was never supposed to happen. When the British negotiated the handover of Hong Kong to Beijing in 1984 under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, China promised to grant the city autonomy. It was agreed that the Chinese Communist Party’s socialist economic and political system would not be practiced in Hong Kong. Residents of the semi-autonomous region would have democratic freedoms, including “freedom of speech, of the press and publication; freedom of association, of assembly; of procession and of demonstration.”

But since making these promises, the Chinese Communist Party has gradually imposed its controls to make politics and economics in Hong Kong look more like politics and economics in Beijing: less free and less fair. Long the proof that Chinese nationals were capable of self-government in contradiction to statements by Beijing, a free Hong Kong is now in danger of dying. Note that Hong Kong booksellers who offered books banned in China have disappeared, and that pro-democracy activists have been jailed, and that all pro-democracy candidates running for office have been disqualified.

Beijing’s actions have fomented many protests in Hong Kong over the years, but none on the scale of what has happened this year. With the Legislative Council controlled by pro-China parties, Chief Executive Carrie Lam — also vetted by Beijing — tried to push through legislation to extradite criminals for trial to China. This measure was a pretext to make dissidents “disappear” in China. China has no independent judiciary, so state extradition there means state-sanctioned kidnapping. And so the people of Hong Kong rose up.

Do you hear the people sing? They are louder than ever before. In 2003, half a million residents took to the streets to fight legislation that would have punished citizens for speaking out against Beijing. In 2014, more than 100,000 people participated in the “Umbrella Movement” protests to stop China from interfering in the city’s elections and securing pro-China candidates. And now, the protests against the extradition law have been the largest and most unified since the handover in 1997, bringing over 2 million people — a quarter of the population — to the streets.

Scorpions, however, have a nature, and Beijing will not back down. The extradition bill still has not been withdrawn. Beijing is threatening Hong Kong, saying that “those who play with fire will perish by it.” This warning came just after orders from Beijing to fly the Hong Kong and Chinese flags above government offices at half-staff in mourning for the death of Li Peng, “the butcher of Beijing” responsible for ordering Chinese troops to use lethal force and end the Tiananmen Square protests.

It no longer seems inconceivable to Hong Kongers that the same army might also be brought in to clear their streets. Already, disguised Chinese army officers have attacked protesters, with intimidation tactics not seen since the days of Chairman Mao. There are even reports that Chinese forces are massing on Hong Kong’s border. The Tiananmen Square massacre should not happen again. And yet it easily, and quickly, could.

The United States and free nations everywhere can and must stop this from happening. We in the West must stand in solidarity with the fight of Hong Kongers to retain basic freedoms. Universal justice demands it, and so does national interest. The U.S. must tell China that America will suspend its special relationship with Hong Kong if Beijing continues to exploit it. Under the 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act, the U.S. has treated Hong Kong as separate from mainland China in matters of trade. But Beijing is not only undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy. China is also exploiting America’s special trading relationship with Hong Kong to circumvent U.S. export controls, customs duties, and sanctions, as well as to conduct influence and espionage operations. This is a matter of national security.

Members of Congress have introduced several measures to address these abuses by Beijing. Senators Ted Cruz (R., Texas) and Ed Markey (D., Mass.) in June introduced a bill to amend the United States–Hong Kong Policy Act to require a report on how China is exploiting Hong Kong to circumvent U.S. laws. Also, leaders of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, including Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), Chairman Jim McGovern (D., Mass.), and Representative Chris Smith (R., N.J.), reintroduced the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, requiring the State Department to justify the special treatment afforded to Hong Kong and requiring the president to set sanctions on officials responsible for the abduction of the booksellers and journalists. Hundreds of American citizens have written letters through the Free Hong Kong Campaign in support of these bills. And on Tuesday,  Speaker Pelosi issued a statement supporting those protesting in Hong Kong and pledged to lead a bipartisan effort to advance the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.

For the United States to stand for a free Hong Kong, Congress must pass these measures immediately. That city deserves to be defended against a tyranny that has already victimized tens of millions of people in its 70-year history and that seeks the ruin of this precious experiment in liberty — this proof of a better path for all the people of China. If America and its allies don’t act soon, then the Communist scorpion will sting — and a free Hong Kong will die.

Kristina Olney is the director of government relations at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C.


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