Secretary of State Mike Pompeo today notified Congress of a finding that should make China think hard about its next move with regard to Hong Kong.
The United States is not abandoning Hong Kong. Pompeo makes that clear in the second half of his tweet.
His report is mandated by a law Congress passed and President Trump signed last year. That law, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, builds on existing American law under which Hong Kong is treated separately from mainland China in trade and travel.
The Department of State shall certify annually to Congress as to whether Hong Kong warrants its unique treatment under various treaties, agreements, and U.S. law. The analysis shall evaluate whether Hong Kong is upholding the rule of law and protecting rights enumerated in various documents, including (1) the agreement between the United Kingdom and China regarding Hong Kong’s return to China, and (2) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Hong Kong Human Rights Act went onto the books as China was making early moves to clamp down on Hong Kong’s unique status. Pompeo’s report is the first such certification done since the law was passed amid China’s provocations.
Since 1997, Hong Kong has lived under “one state, two systems,” in which the former British colony’s citizens enjoyed democratic rights including free speech despite being part of communist China, where there are no democratic or individual human rights. Hong Kong is the gateway through which most foreign investment flows into China, helping fuel its rise as a superpower. But because Hong Kong has been the goose that laid China’s golden eggs, previous regimes in Beijing were reluctant to change Hong Kong’s special status.
Current Chinese Premier Xi Jinping has not seen fit to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy. In February 2019, Hong Kong’s security bureau (under orders from Beijing) recommended its government pass amendments to extradition laws that would allow Hong Kongers to be extradited to mainland China for prosecution. This would begin the process of putting Hong Kong under Beijing’s very strict repression of free speech and protest. It would effectively end “one state, two systems” and make Hong Kong subject to Beijing’s whims, where human rights are of no value.
Hong Kongers took to the streets in protest. Those protests went on for months, until the Hong Kong government withdrew the extradition amendments in late October 2019.
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests continued and earned global support including from the Trump administration.
The coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, took the spotlight off Hong Kong. China covered up and misdirected its role in the pandemic, but continued moving against Hong Kong’s freedom. Just this month, the communists passed a hugely oppressive national security law aimed at Hong Kong.
The law, which is expected to ban sedition, secession and subversion of the central government in Beijing, will be introduced through a rarely used constitutional method that could effectively bypass Hong Kong’s legislature.
News of the plans was met with immediate criticism by opposition lawmakers in Hong Kong, human rights groups and the US State Department.
While this was happening in Beijing, communists set about physically removing pro-democracy lawmakers from parliament in Hong Kong itself, so the city’s rump government would acquiesce to the mainland by vote.
Secretary Pompeo’s report does not by itself change Hong Kong’s status. It is a strong signal that the United States stands ready to act, short of war, on Hong Kong’s behalf.
Under a series of laws passed before and after the British returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997, the United States treats Hong Kong differently from the mainland in a number of important ways. One of those involves investment. Hong Kong recognizes basic rule of law; mainland China, in keeping with communism, does not. The vast majority of foreign investment funnels into China by way of Hong Kong because Hong Kong provides a safe and reliable conduit. Beijing’s subjugation of Hong Kong changes everything.
If Congress or President Trump move forward with Pompeo’s report, Hong Kong’s special status will go away. Sanctions and tariffs imposed on China will also be imposed on Hong Kong. The cities and China’s economy will suffer. International divestment from China will likely speed up, as foreign companies operating through Hong Kong are at greater risk of arbitrary treatment by the communists. The pro-Beijing South China Morning Post:
Under the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act passed by the US Congress last year, the administration must decide annually whether governance of Hong Kong is suitably distinct from China.
Options available to the administration – which may in part depend on Beijing’s reaction, analysts said – include higher trade tariffs, tougher investment rules, asset freezes and more onerous visa rules.
Individuals who violate the human rights of Hong Kong can also be targeted for sanctions individually, according to the summary of the law.
The State Department shall notify Congress if any proposed or enacted law in Hong Kong negatively impacts U.S. interests, including by putting U.S. citizens at risk of rendition to China.
The President shall impose property and visa-blocking sanctions on foreign persons responsible for gross human rights violations in Hong Kong.
A predictable left-of-center reaction foreshadows the political discussion to come in the U.S.:
“I believe that this will hurt Hong Kong people in myriad ways,” said Richard Bush, a fellow with the Brookings Institution and author of Hong Kong in the Shadow of China: Living with the Leviathan. “Among other things, it will confirm the People’s Republic of China view that the US wants to undermine its rule of Hong Kong.”
Beijing has spent the past 17 months undermining Hong Kong’s special status. The United States has consistently reacted and condemned China’s actions. Bush’s comment may as well have come from the Chinese foreign ministry. The United States has an obligation to respond if that status becomes a fiction. Hundreds of American companies operate in and through Hong Kong. It is one of the world’s financial hubs.
The next move is China’s to make.
Xi met with the heads of the People’s Liberation Army this week and told them to “scale up battle preparedness.”