Hong Kong on the Line

The city of Hong Kong is a mere fraction of the overall size of China, but in recent days it’s been making headlines that have sent shudders through the mainland, and that have even registered in the United States.

The former British colony marked on Monday the 22nd anniversary of its return to China; it was a day fraught with protests and foreboding.

The annual dual-flag-raising ceremony had to be protected by squadrons of police armed with riot shields and pepper spray, to keep away from the site the participants of yet another in a series of unprecedently huge demonstrations.

The officialdom sheltered in the city’s convention center, where they watched on a screen the flags of Hong Kong and the People’s Republic being raised together. An intermittent light rain was their stated reason for not attending out in the open, but many thought they were taking shelter from the angry crowds.

And the crowds have something to be angry about. Under the “one country, two systems” framework, Hong Kong has more than halfway to go before the 50-year guarantee of its freedoms expire. In the meantime, a recent bill proposed by city leader Carrie Lam to enable extraditions to the mainland, as well as mainland-initiated asset freezes, has aroused the public as never before.

The people of Hong Kong fear, and rightly so, that the bill — along with loyalty tests, notably harsh prosecution of protesters and rough police treatment in the streets — signals that the broad autonomy promised them in 1997 may not last until 2047, or anywhere near it.

Citywide outrage earlier in June forced Lam on June 15 to suspend the bill and apologize for her error. As she put it, “This has made me fully realize that I, as a politician, have to remind myself all the time of the need to grasp public sentiments accurately.”

But the bill has only been suspended, not formally withdrawn. And Lam has not admitted to any error in the content of the legislation, only in her misreading of what the people will accept at this juncture. She has also refused demands for her to resign. So the demonstrations continue.

Until now, demonstrations have been peaceful. However, increasing frustration over persistent encroachments on local independence by the authorities has led to more militant protests, including the storming of the parliament building on Monday night.

That is when, as reported by the Associated Press, protesters by the hundreds entered the Hong Kong legislature and committed severe acts of vandalism, pounding on the windows until they shattered, prying open security gates, and occupying the chamber until they were expelled by riot police in the early hours of Tuesday morning. While inside, they defaced lawmakers’ portraits and spray-painted the walls with slogans demanding democracy and a democratic election for city leader. They stood on lawmakers’ desks and wrote slogans on the walls denouncing the extradition legislation.

“Well, they’re looking for democracy and I think most people want democracy,” President Trump told reporters at the White House, on Monday, adding, “Unfortunately, some governments don’t want democracy.”

Hong Kong is at a crossroads, and a perilous one. A pivot toward violence could be disastrous.

Enter the United States. The Congressional Executive Commission on China introduced a bipartisan resolution expressing support for the Hong Kong protesters which is still pending. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went a step further, warning that if the extradition bill passes, Congress should review Hong Kong’s special trading privileges with the United States.

Michael H. Fuchs, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs, cautions that a punitive stance could be counterproductive.

“The United States must speak out, raise the issues at the highest levels, and pursue targeted responses like sanctions on companies and individuals involved in the repression.” But, he stipulated in a piece in The Guardian, “the U.S. must continue to support Hong Kong’s autonomy rather than threaten its special status.”

The issue is exceedingly delicate. We have been here many times before, not only in China, but in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, Kurdistan and elsewhere, when the impulse to speak out in behalf of brave people fighting for their freedom must be weighed against conditions on the ground. Tiananmen Square cannot be far from anyone’s mind.

Life and freedom are in imminent danger. The future of Hong Kong is at stake. Yet how to best broach the matter with the Chinese leaders is something that must be carefully decided, after carefully considering what all the repercussions will be.