Last week was not a happy one for the People’s Republic of China.
First, on Sunday, there were local elections in Hong Kong, technically part of China but functioning largely as an independent country, which yielded a landslide victory for the former British colony’s pro-democracy camp.
The reformers won 392 out of 452 district council seats, giving them control of 17 out of 18 councils. While council members have limited powers, the vote gave the democracy advocates a substantially bigger say in the selection process for Hong Kong’s chief executive.
Then, mere days later, President Trump signed a bill authorizing sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials who violate human rights.
The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 both mandates sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials who carry out human rights abuses and requires an annual review of the favorable trade status that Washington grants Hong Kong. A second bill also signed into law by the president prohibits export to Hong Kong police of munitions like tear gas, rubber bullets and other nonlethal weapons used to control crowds.
The legislation had passed both houses of Congress with ease, and the president, who some had felt might not back the bill because of the ongoing trade talks with China, came to understand the importance of showing support for the pro-democracy activists who, in large numbers, have been demonstrating in Hong Kong streets since the summer.
The original cause of the protests was proposed legislation that would have allowed China to force the extradition of suspects from Hong Kong to the mainland.
But, simmering in the background was resentment by Hong Kong residents over other issues, including the need for a more fair voting system and effective oversight of police to prevent misconduct. Those are the issues that have ignited the passions of the pro-democracy movement.
Fuel was added to the fire as a result of police conduct during the first demonstrations, when then-largely peaceful protesters were met with tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray and batons.
The protests have resulted in two deaths, both at the hands of local police. Some protesters, too, engaged in acts of violence, in one case setting a counter-protester on fire. And, last month, pro-democracy activists barricaded themselves on the campus of Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University for 12 days.
China reacted with outrage to the new U.S. law. The Chinese foreign ministry denounced the legislation as having “seriously interfered with Hong Kong affairs, seriously interfered with China’s internal affairs, and seriously violated international law and basic norms of international relations,” and the government threatened repercussions.
Later in the week, President Trump sought to mitigate China’s anger, issuing a statement that said that he had signed the bill “out of respect for President Xi, China, and the people of Hong Kong” and expressing the hope that representatives of the People’s Republic will be able to “amicably settle their differences.”
The president is engaged in a deft dance, expressing the U.S.’s deep displeasure with the strong-arm tactics that the Beijing-controlled Hong Kong police have employed, while trying to maintain the progress toward a trade agreement with China.
Mr. Trump has been trying to get China to agree to a deal that would benefit American farmers and manufacturers and allow technology firms to operate more freely in China.
He announced last month that the United States and China had reached a “historic” Phase 1 trade agreement, but, so far, no deal has been signed. Among the outstanding issues is whether the U.S. is prepared to remove any of the tariffs currently placed on $360 billion worth of Chinese goods. And the U.S. faces a December 15 deadline for deciding whether to impose new tariffs on even more Chinese imports, including consumer electronics.
The fact, though, that concerns about a final trade deal did not prevent the president’s signing of the new Hong Kong bills is significant. As is the bi-partisan sentiment that the U.S. show support for the Hong Kong freedom advocates.
“This new law could not be more timely in showing strong U.S. support for Hong Kongers’ long-cherished freedoms,” said Florida Senator Marco Rubio, one of his chamber’s most vocal supporters of the bills. And, on the other side of the partisan aisle in the other chamber, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi praised the “bicameral, bipartisan law [that] reaffirms our nation’s commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law in the face of Beijing’s crackdown.”
Whatever the fate of the trade negotiations with China, the bi-partisan and pan-branch effort to get China to wake up and smell the strong aroma of democracy in Hong Kong is laudable.