What do pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong want from the U.S. government? Earlier this month I traveled to Hong Kong and posed this question directly to the protestors.
They told me that members of Congress should visit them so that they can see the truth about what’s happening and talk to the government of Hong Kong to seek a resolution to the crisis. Also, civil society figures, young and old, unanimously told me they want Congress to pass two pieces of legislation. The activists regard Congressman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and other sponsors of the bills as heroes.
The protests, now in their fourth month, show no signs of fading. They were triggered by legislation allowing extradition of suspects to mainland China. The authorities have now promised to withdraw the legislation, but that was one only one of the protestors’ five demands. The four remaining demands are an independent inquiry into the use of force by police, amnesty for arrested protesters, an end to describing the protests as riots and universal suffrage.
The movement is largely leaderless — or leaderful, as some describe it. There have been some attacks on property, and while a small number of protesters have thrown bricks and petrol bombs, they have generally shown remarkable restraint. There has been no real looting, and the protestors’ targets of violence have mostly been Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR) stations, as MTR’s management is widely seen as colluding with the police against protestors.
The police have used excessive force against the protestors, including the indiscriminate use of U.S.-made tear gas. Public trust in the police is largely broken, and Hong Kong's society is shaken and polarized by the ongoing unrest.
The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week, offers a range of support to the protestors. Among other things, it requires the administration to produce reports on human rights and the role of law in Hong Kong and
on export controls on sensitive dual-use items that Hong Kong’s government could use for “mass surveillance and predictive policing.” It also directs the State Department not to deny visas to Hong Long citizens arrested for protesting. Finally, it calls for sanctions on those responsible for “actions to suppress basic freedoms on Hong Kong.”
The other bill, PROTECT Hong Kong Act, also approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week, would stop the United States from exporting tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray and other items to Hong Kong’s police.
The protest movement has been a tactical success. Its philosophy is founded on the “Be Water” philosophy of martial arts legend Bruce Lee. That mantra is on posters and graffiti all over the city. Mass demonstrations surge and ebb quickly, with activist crowds flowing through the streets and, depending on police response, aiming to be suddenly as hard as ice or as elusive as mist.
But whether the movement will be a political success depends on how long it can sustain local and international support, and on how Beijing chooses to respond. October 1, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the modern Chinese state, is likely to be a key moment. Large anti-Beijing protests are expected, and the Chinese government might decide to make its move soon after.
The U.S. Congress can do its part in the coming weeks to help those in Hong Kong who are fighting for human rights. Activists want Congress to pass the bills quickly, in a strong show of solidarity. For American policymakers, this legislation offers a rare chance to vote their conscience, stand with the good guys and get on the right side of history.
Brian Dooley is senior advisor at Human Rights First, a non-profit, nonpartisan international human rights organization.