Eventually, world must confront China over Hong Kong

Published 8:27 pm Wednesday, August 21, 2019


U.S. Senator

The Hong Kong crisis is something the world has seen time and again: authoritarian rulers seeking to repress the innate human desire for freedom, self-expression and self-government. The scenes remind us of Budapest in 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968, of Tiananmen Square in 1989 and Moscow in recent weeks. The next chapter is unfolding today as the Chinese Communist Party terrorizes the people of Hong Kong.

Email newsletter signup

An estimated two million Hong Kongers—about one-fourth of the population—are demonstrating for the freedoms and autonomy that have made their city a global success. They are protesting the government in Beijing and its determination, in violation of its promises, to chip away at those freedoms.

The protestors want their liberties preserved, the territory’s autonomy respected, and justice for those the security services have detained, brutalized or murdered. Contrary to Communist propaganda, this citizens’ uprising is no foreign conspiracy. If anything, the world’s leading democratic nations have been slow to respond. Only one capital is responsible for what is unfolding in Hong Kong: Beijing. The demonstrators are responding to its efforts to exert ever more influence and control over what is supposed to be an autonomous region.

It is crucial to recognize that the dynamics that led to this crisis didn’t begin in Hong Kong and won’t end there. The turmoil is the result of Beijing’s systematic ratcheting up of its domestic oppression and its pursuit of hegemony abroad.

Years ago, it was reasonable to think that China’s rapid development and integration into the global economy might lead it to embrace prevailing international rules, that success would give Beijing a stake in the systems that uphold peace and prosperity. Now it is clear the Communist Party wants to write its own rules and impose them on others.

For evidence of China’s hunger for power, consider the fate of its other supposedly autonomous regions. In Tibet, Beijing’s brutal response to unrest in 1959 drove tens of thousands into exile and killed tens of thousands more. In Xinjiang, a mostly Muslim province, the state has displaced ethnic Uighur minorities through population transfers and established an elaborate architecture of social and political surveillance, including ethnic prison camps. Xinjiang is no autonomous region; it is a modern gulag. In both cases, Beijing spent decades methodically tightening its grip.

Beijing has sought to write a similar story in Hong Kong, albeit more subtly. But Hong Kongers are not cut off from the truth by China’s “Great Firewall.” They recognized a bill to allow extradition to the mainland as a significant threat to their legal and political autonomy. So China’s leaders now face a choice. Will they intensify pressure on Hong Kong, gambling that the rest of the world will look the other way? Or will Beijing conclude that further repression in Hong Kong would bring further consequences?

China’s trading partners, including the U.S., should make it clear that any crackdown would have real and painful costs. I wrote the Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, which extended special privileges to the region because of its unique status. This special access to the U.S. and other nations helped drive the investment and modernization that have enriched Hong Kong, and Beijing by extension. Beijing must know the Senate will reconsider that special relationship, among other steps, if Hong Kong’s autonomy is eroded.

I support extending and expanding the law’s reporting requirements to illuminate Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong. And the Senate will do more. I have asked Jim Risch, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, to examine Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong and its efforts to expand the Communist Party’s influence and surveillance across China and beyond. I am working with Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee for State and Foreign Operations, to fund democracy and human-rights programs across Asia. I will maintain our strong focus on rebuilding and modernizing the military, continuing the huge strides of the past 2½ years, so that our ability to project power and defend American interests keeps pace with this major competitor.

But it is not America’s task alone to address these threats. The world is awakening to China’s abusive and aggressive practices, from unfair trade actions to intellectual-property theft to offshore expansion. Now Hong Kong has plastered front pages with yet another cautionary tale about how the Chinese regime treats those within its envisioned sphere of influence and disregards international agreements that govern them.

Every trading nation and democracy that values individual liberty and privacy has a stake here. Their choice is not between the U.S. and China but between a free, fair international system and the internal oppression, surveillance and modern vassal system China seeks to impose.

The U.S., for its own interests, seeks international peace, a good relationship with China, and a mutually prosperous future for our peoples. Hong Kong is only one piece of the complex set of interests that makes up the U.S.-China relationship. But China’s treatment of the people of Hong Kong will shape how the U.S. approaches other key aspects of our relationship.

As Beijing grapples with growing domestic unrest and slowing economic growth, it should pause before threatening a key engine of its growth and provoking the international community. Beijing can step back from chaos to pursue freer and fairer trade and greater respect for sovereignty and human rights. These basic steps can ensure a more prosperous and peaceful future for all of our citizens.

Mitch McConnell is a U.S. senator from Kentucky and the Senate majority leader.