An Independence Day wish for Hong Kong

An Independence Day wish for Hong Kong
© Getty Images

July is not the most pleasant month to be in Hong Kong. It’s hot and sticky. But the city has gotten even hotter with the continuing mass protests against Beijing and Beijing’s hand-picked chief executive, Carrie Lam.

On Monday more than half-a-million Hong Kongers hit the streets in support of democracy for Hong Kong on the very anniversary of the British government’s handover of the city to the People’s Republic of China in 1997.  That evening, a segment of the protest turned violent, with students occupying and trashing the city’s legislative quarters.

The proximate cause for the protests is Beijing’s efforts, through Lam, to push through an extradition law that would allow any citizen of Hong Kong, or even anyone residing in or traveling through the city, to be detained by Hong Kong police and extradited to the mainland to stand trial there for one of more than three dozen types of criminal offenses as defined by China.

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Reasonably enough, more than two million Hong Kongers, not trusting the Chinese justice system, have marched against the proposed measure and called on Lam to step down as well. So far, Lam has not stepped down and the bill has been tabled only temporarily.

This is not the first time that Beijing has tried to trim the sails of Hong Kong and put into question China’s willingness to abide by its pledge in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 to allow Hong Kong a high degree of internal autonomy.

In 2003 the then-chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, attempted to push through a change in the city’s constitution (“the Basic Law”) by making subversion against the Chinese government a crime. Fearing both the vagueness of the law’s terms and the PRC’s well-practiced reading of such laws in the broadest manner possible, Hong Kongers massed in protest and the measure was shelved.

Then in 2014, Hong Kongers took to the streets for two and half months to protest Beijing’s decision not to allow the chief executive to be chosen through universal suffrage – as many in the city expected and China appeared to have promised in its negotiations with the British. This time, however, the protests were unsuccessful and Carrie Lam was selected under circumscribed electoral rules and only after first being vetted by the Chinese government.

In short, the protest of the last few days is not Hong Kongers “first rodeo” when it comes to pushing back against China’s efforts to exercise more control over the city’s governance. And indeed it’s likely that Beijing’s actions and the resulting protests have accelerated Hong Kongers’ views that they have a separate civic identity from that of mainland Chinese.

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Americans this week celebrate Independence Day, when the British colonies of North America publicly declared their independence from Great Britain. They did so, the Declaration argued, after the British government had repeatedly transgressed what the colonists viewed as their rights to self-rule. In truth, the “long train of abuses” listed by the Declaration are not the kinds of hideous, bloody abuses we associate with tyrannies today. But the colonists saw the various decisions by London as evidence of “a design” to curtail their freedoms even further. They no longer trusted London to listen to their pleas and petitions about their rights; they had seen enough, they thought, to know where these decisions by London were headed. They decided that breaking free was the only viable, if extremely risky, alternative.

Most Hong Kongers are not at that point, knowing they have little to no capacity to make that a reality. Up to this point, the protests are mostly to keep Beijing from infringing on its pledge of “one country, two systems.”

But there is a growing suspicion that the People’s Republic has had different plans for Hong Kong all along and thus a more confrontational response to those plans is called for. This appears to be the sentiment driving the students who occupied the city’s legislature on Monday. Absent some unimaginable change of heart from Beijing, such actions will probably result in an even sterner hand from the Chinese government.

In anticipation of that possibility, members of Congress should announce plans to revise the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992 in order to strengthen the hand of those wanting to maintain Hong Kong’s autonomy and, in turn, make life more difficult for those Hong Kong and Chinese officials who will have a hand in undermining it. And while the administration is right to call for wiser heads to prevail, its credibility with the protesters is hardly helped when they hear President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Warren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes MORE say he spoke only “briefly” with Chinese President Xi about Hong Kong.

This is no time to ignore a fellow ex-colony’s efforts to maintain its basic freedoms.

Gary Schmitt is resident scholar in strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute.