Is Hong Kong Tiananmen Square II?

With protesters jamming the streets and occupying government buildings in Hong Kong, demanding the right to nominate their own candidates for governing the region in 2017, the United States faces yet another test. Will it support a democratic movement in Hong Kong or will it remain on the sidelines and watch while the Chinese government suppresses yet another attempt to achieve democracy?

The protesters are only demanding what the Chinese government promised when it took over governance of the island from the British in 1997: the right to “universal suffrage” in choosing their chief executive.

Under the agreement, the citizens of Hong Kong were supposed to retain their right to elect anyone they wanted to govern the island; although officially part of China, the island was to have autonomy from the Chinese government.

Now, the Chinese government wants to deal a death blow to the democratic aspirations of the people of Hong Kong. Instead of permitting Hong Kong voters to pick the candidates for the election of a chief executive in 2017, the Chinese government is only allowing candidates approved by the government in Beijing. In other words, the election will be rigged so that the winner will be a candidate approved by the Chinese government. Hong Kong can then say goodbye to any democracy or autonomy it has been promised.

Unfortunately, China has every reason to believe that it will have a free hand in Hong Kong to do whatever it pleases. The West has long chosen to turn a blind eye to China’s violations of human rights. In 1989, the Chinese government ruthlessly and savagely crushed the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Scores were killed and hundreds wounded as Chinese soldiers, armed with assault rifles and in tanks, mowed down the demonstrators, whose only demand was more representation in their own government.

After an initial flurry of condemnation from Western governments, the U.S. included, and some economic slaps on the wrist, it was business as usual. Chinese trade with the West has soared since then. The U.S. alone imported more than $440 billion worth of goods in 2013, according to the United States Census Bureau. China, with a population of more than 1.3 billion, roughly 20 percent of the world’s population, remains a repressive totalitarian state, where its citizens live under constant surveillance and fear.

Neither has the free world done much for the rights of the Tibetans suffering under Chinese rule. Chinese authorities routinely detain, torture and kill Tibetan dissidents. Last a year, a U.S. State Department report called Chinese repression of Tibetans “severe.”

While the world is outraged, and rightly so, over the grisly executions carried out by the ISIS terrorists during the last few months, China executes thousands of prisoners every year — more than the world’s other countries combined. According to Amnesty International, 500,000 Chinese prisoners are detained with charges or trial; millions more are denied access to the legal system. And just last week, during protests in the Xianjiang province, near Central Asia, Chinese security forces killed 40 rioters protesting the life sentence of a Muslim scholar.

The Obama administration’s stance has been to tell the Chinese that it’s in their best interests to have a better human rights record because it would make their country more prosperous. But, as the crackdown in Hong Kong is clearly demonstrating, the Chinese are confident in their economic prowess and the dependence on them by the free world for their manufactured goods. Any kind of embargo by the West on China would likely boomerang against Western economies, at least in the short term. Hong Kong is a major financial market, and the crackdown threatens to jeopardize that position, but for the Communist Party, the risk of democratic fervor spreading to the mainland is a big risk for its authoritarian government to take. If political freedom can take root in Hong Kong, the Chinese fear, it might spread to the rest of the mainland.

Telling the Chinese that their human rights abuses are not good for business won’t stem the repressive policies in China and those now on display in Hong Kong. China saw the tepid response of the U.S. after Tiananmen Square and the West’s lack of decisive action against China’s abysmal human rights record. What we are witnessing is classic authoritarian behavior: China has gotten away with its human rights abuses for so many years that it now senses no impediment to breaking its promise of democracy to Hong Kong. We urge President Obama to not permit democracy to suffer another defeat in Asia and to show support for the protestors in Hong Kong.