To stand with the people of Hong Kong, pass the Human Rights and Democracy Act

To stand with the people of Hong Kong, pass the Human Rights and Democracy Act
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Hong Kong’s summer of discontent has shone a spotlight on the steady erosion of the city’s freedoms and autonomy.

Since the Umbrella Movement of 2014, there has been a crackdown on human rights. Booksellers have been abducted, democratically elected lawmakers barred from taking their seats, candidates politically screened, a political party was banned, and many peaceful pro-democracy protesters have been imprisoned.

The erosion of human rights points to a deeper political problem: the Chinese Communist Party’s steady encroachment into every aspect of life, epitomized in recent weeks by the pressure placed on Cathay Pacific to purge their pro-democracy employees. 

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Beijing’s erosion of the city’s autonomy, combined with steep inequality and one of the world’s worst housing crises, has left public trust at an all-time low. The attempt to bulldoze through the extradition bill combined with the police brutality of recent months has only confirmed antipathy for the government. 

Any long-lasting solution to the political crisis must be initiated by the Hong Kong government and its counterparts in Beijing. An independent inquiry into the summer’s police brutality combined with a package of political reforms would help rebuild harmony in Hong Kong and could begin to address the genuine grievances held by large swathes of the Hong Kong public.

However, there has been little sign that the Hong Kong government is willing to take these bold steps. And so, in the meantime, the world must stand with the people of Hong Kong.  

The United States should immediately pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019. This legislation proactively enshrines American support for Hong Kong’s democracy and autonomy into law and would send a powerful symbolic message to the people of Hong Kong: that American support for Hong Kong is more than just empty words. Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets earlier this month to call for the act to be passed into law. 

But this legislation is more than a symbolic statement. It would give the administration a range of new powers that would strengthen support for the democracy movement, while holding the Chinese government to its commitments to Hong Kong.

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Hong Kong’s relationship with the United States is currently governed by the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act, which institutionalizes the close economic ties between Hong Kong and the United States. The United States is Hong Kong’s second largest trading partner. The Policy Act also dictates that the special privileges Hong Kong receives are predicated on the integrity of the city’s autonomy and freedoms. If the president deems Hong Kong to no longer have this autonomy, he can selectively suspend these privileges by executive order.

The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act builds on the Hong Kong Policy Act to provide both more flexible and more robust options for the administration. A lot has changed in Hong Kong since 1992 — Beijing has broken many of the promises it made at the hand-over. This has damaged the daily lives of Hong Kongers and is detrimental to U.S. interests. If Hong Kong is not fully autonomous from Beijing, what is to stop the Communist Party using the city as a back door to avoid stringent tariffs or transfer technology? Hong Kong’s future is on a knife edge, and the U.S. government needs the flexibility to take substantive action.

The act contains critical provisions. First, it guarantees that pro-democracy protesters who are arrested do not find their applications for visas blocked if they face a politicized trial. Second, it ensures that the perpetrators of violations of human rights will genuinely bear the consequences of their actions, through the application of Magnitsky sanctions.

Finally, it sends a signal to China that it cannot erode the city's autonomy while reaping the benefits. By mandating the secretary of State to issue a judgement on Hong Kong’s autonomy to Congress, and expanding the scope of the examination of Hong Kong’s autonomy, the legislation would require the administration to publish transparent and rigorous assessments of the situation in Hong Kong. This would ensure that diplomatic double-speak is not allowed to gloss over further abuses of human rights or the city’s autonomy by the Chinese Communist Party.

Critics of the legislation have argued that the law would make the assessment of the status of Hong Kong too much of a political judgement. However, U.S.-Hong Kong policy is already inherently political: major decisions are being made daily by mandarins behind closed doors. This legislation would increase the transparency of the process and ensure that the Hong Kong government, and its counterparts in Beijing, know that their decisions will have consequences. 

Hong Kong is at a historic watershed. Its people are on the frontlines of the global fight for liberal democratic values. The passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act would not only be a momentous symbolic statement that the world still cares about the people of Hong Kong, it would help incentivize the Hong Kong government to respect people's freedoms. It is time for the act to be passed.  

Johnny Patterson is director of Hong Kong Watch, an international human rights group. Follow him on Twitter @Johnny_HKWatch.