Opinion – Deeper US Involvement in Hong Kong’s Democratization and Its Impacts

On September 25, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 got support from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, marking a deeper US involvement in Hong Kong’s democratization. While the bill will be discussed in detail by both the House and the Senate, the proposed Act is politically very significant in the triangular relations between US, China and Hong Kong.
First, in the US-China trade negotiations, the Hong Kong factor has already become a bargaining chip from the US perspective. Naturally, officials of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) reacted strongly and immediately, accusing the US of interfering with China’s domestic affairs. Yet, if the US trade negotiators wish to play the Hong Kong card, Beijing would likely be strategized to respond to the push for democratization from many Hongkongers. In brief, the anti-extradition movement has already evolved in such a way that it will gradually become a tug of war between the US and China, and that it would shape Beijing’s policy toward Hong Kong.
Second, the US is now replacing the UK as the most important foreign actor shaping Hong Kong’s political development. In recent years, PRC officials have apparently played down the importance of the Sino-British Joint Declaration over Hong Kong. Despite the fact that British officials and diplomats insist that the PRC should stick to its promises in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the reality is that, with the rise of China and its relatively “hard-line” policy toward Hong Kong, the Basic Law of Hong Kong has become constitutionally and politically far more significant than the Sino-British Joint Declaration. It has been very rare for PRC officials and diplomats to refer to the content of the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Most importantly, with the publication of the 2014 White Paper on the implementation of the Basic Law, the PRC has emphasized the importance of its “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong. At the same time, PRC officials have reiterated the importance of “one country” over “two systems.” It can perhaps be argued that, intuitively and practically, the PRC government has already downgraded the “status” of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and replaced it with domestic documents, specifically the 2014 White Paper and the Hong Kong Basic Law.
Thirdly, although the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 can sanction those Hong Kong officials and elites responsible for the “violation” of internationally recognized human rights in Hong Kong, it is unclear how the Act, if passed, would be implemented. One scenario is that the Hong Kong democrats who lobby the US government come up with a proposed list of sanctioned targets, together with the list to be prepared by the US officials in Hong Kong. Yet, the list can be maximalist, involving more people. Or it can be minimalist, embracing the most important elites only. A likely scenario is that the Hong Kong officials and elites who may be sanctioned would be quite restrictive and selective, focusing on some prominent individuals to avoid the widespread impacts on all other officials and to shun the negative impacts on the US-Hong Kong exchanges and cooperation in non-political areas, like trade and educational interactions.
Fourthly, if the Act were passed and enacted, the Hong Kong government would perhaps be under tremendous pressure to do something more about the democratization of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). One possibility is that the HKSAR government would counter such an Act by publishing an annual report on the development of Hong Kong’s human rights and democracy. Another possibility is that the HKSAR government would be hard-pressed to set up a political reform committee sooner rather than later. This committee would study the political reform proposals, report to the government, and issue regular reports on Hong Kong’s democratic development. The third possibility is that the HKSAR government maintains the status quo by issuing statements to counter the criticisms of foreign countries on its democratic development and human rights. The fourth possibility is that, whatever option to be chosen by the HKSAR government, Beijing would have a say on how Hong Kong should react to the US criticisms, because the Hong Kong development has already become a crucial factor shaping Sino-US relations.
Fifthly, the Hong Kong democrats appear to be emboldened and empowered by their success in lobbying the US Congressmen, Senators and officials on the need for the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019. The pro-Beijing mass media have already levelled criticisms at these democrats, including the young activists, calling them “traitors.” So long as Article 23 of the Basic Law is not formally enacted, these democrats who lobby the US for democratization in the HKSAR remain perhaps relatively and politically “safe.” Yet, if Article 23 were enacted in the HKSAR, it remains to be seen how the HKSAR authorities and Beijing would cope with these democrats who are constantly lobbying the US for Hong Kong’s democratization.
Sixthly, some US politicians would likely be concerned about whether the Act, if passed, would have an unintended consequence on the Hong Kong protestors, some of whom may seek refuge in the US in the worst-case scenario. The amended version of the Act removed the word “peaceful” for protestors who apply for US visas without obstruction. Some young democrats in Hong Kong have hailed this amendment as a positive sign and encouragement to Hongkongers. Yet, from the perspective of some US politicians and congressional assistants, only those peaceful protestors whose human rights are violated should be protected by the US, rather than those violent protestors. In short, the scope of the Act’s coverage would have to be refined and decided later.
Seventh, the proposed Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 is politically significant because it shows that, apart from the European Union (EU) which constantly speaks up for Hong Kong’s civil liberties, the US is the most important country that stands up for the autonomy of the HKSAR. The EU was outspoken in its position on the suspected abduction of the publishers of the Causeway Bay bookstore in late 2015 and early 2016. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, if passed, would have to delineate the meaning of “autonomy” of the HKSAR. If clear indicators of “autonomy” are delineated, the Act would perhaps constitute an influential instrument for the US to check and balance not only the PRC’s policy toward Hong Kong but also the HKSAR government’s policy toward domestic political dissidents.
Eighth, it can be anticipated that the US would pay special attention on technology transfer from US to Hong Kong, where some companies were found by the US government to transfer its sensitive technology to other places in violation of the US export control laws. Given the rapid development of the Greater Bay Area (GBA) plan, and given the fact that more Hong Kong-based companies are likely stimulated by the gradual economic decline in the HKSAR to go into the GBA for more economic opportunities, it would be quite possible that the US government use the Act to implement its export control laws more rigorously in its economic relations with Hong Kong and technology transfer to the territory in the coming decades.
Ninth, the way in which some local democrats see the US as the foreign actor safeguarding Hong Kong’s civil liberties and democratization have a vision of democracy totally different from those pro-establishment Hongkongers. These democrats who have been lobbying the US for the protection of civil liberties and promotion of democracy in Hong Kong believe that internationalization is beneficial to the HKSAR. They also believe that human rights and democracy are universal values shared by peoples all over the world. As such, the internationalization of Hong Kong can even propel the PRC to adopt a more “democratic” outlook. However, this cosmopolitan and internationalized vision of Hong Kong is clashing with the pro-establishment elites, who believe that Hong Kong’s democratization should have its own style, pace and scope without any interference from foreign countries. These pro-Beijing elites also believe in a Hong Kong-style of democracy that is and should be a far cry from Western democracies. Hence, in the coming decades, two competing visions of democracy will persist in Hong Kong. One vision is cosmopolitan, and it sees the US as a facilitator of local democracy. Another is Chinese-style and regards the US intervention as detrimental to both Hong Kong and China. These two visions of democracy in Hong Kong have already divided the civil society. In short, the people of Hong Kong will be increasingly deeply fractious over the ways in which they can and will achieve the ultimate objective of universal suffrage in the HKSAR.
Tenth and finally, since the US involvement in Hong Kong’s democratization is destined to be deeper and more prominent than ever before, the design of a more democratic system in the HKSAR will be increasingly controversial and difficult. Beijing is likely going back to its political parameters established on August 31, 2014, when the Chief Executive election method would include two to three candidates to be selected by a majority of the members of an Election Committee, followed by their competitive struggle for the people’s vote in a direct election, and then by the central government’s formal approval of the candidate who gets most of the votes. In 2014 and 2015, the moderate democrats saw this model as “pseudo-democratic,” but a minority of democrats regarded China’s concession as unprecedented and politically significant, because a locality in the PRC would be able to directly elect its Chief Executive. Above all, a Hong Kong-style democracy would perhaps become a model for China’s democratization in the long run.
Anyway, with the increase in US involvement in Hong Kong’s democratization, Beijing’s hard-line policy toward the territory’s democratic change can be anticipated. This means that if the democrats are not pragmatic enough, political deadlock and bitter arguments would likely return, dividing both the political and civil societies, and plunging the HKSAR into a long process of political and social turmoil. Yet, the dilemma is that even if some moderate democrats accept Beijing’s political parameter on August 31, 2014, they would be accused by the radical democrats as “traitors” selling out the interests of Hong Kong.
All in all, the deeper US involvement in Hong Kong’s democratization is going to politicize not only the triangular relations between the US, China and Hong Kong, but also the already complex, contentious and distrustful relations between the pro-establishment Hongkongers, the moderate democrats, the radical democrats, and the pro-Beijing ruling elites of the HKSAR in the coming decades.