By Bonnie Leung, Jianli Yang and Aaron Rhodes
The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act now awaiting signature on President Trump’s desk is among the most symbolically and substantively consequential pieces of foreign policy legislation in recent years. He must sign it.
The bill mandates that the US government sanction human rights abusing Hong Kong officials, and conditions trade with Hong Kong on adherence to the principle of One Nation Two Systems, to which China committed itself. But it is more than this; it is a signal that America will stand by a people whose freedoms are under assault, and who, with no voice in the matter, are being dragged into the orbit of a totalitarian state.
The Act will surely hurt the economy of Hong Kong, and therefore hit the people hard, as have five months of increasingly violent protests. Why, then, do a majority of people in Hong Kong support it, and indeed demand its passage? Why have the leaders of the protest movement, young people with their personal security and futures at stake, pressed Members of Congress for its passage?
Because the people of Hong Kong understand, probably better than most, that “Man shall not live by bread alone.” Economic well-being without freedom and justice, as promised by the materialistic determinism ideology of the mainland, is worthless. They understand Beijing’s plan for Hong Kong is to continue to let the goose to lay golden eggs while muzzling it. But the people of Hong Kong want to show Beijing that this goose is not afraid to stop laying golden eggs if it cannot be free. This the sacrifice that the people of Hong Kong are prepared to make for their freedom, but they need American leverage to make the point.
Amidst an atmosphere of global moral cynicism and rising authoritarianism threatening individual freedom, when liberty is disrespected even among populations that enjoy it, courageous American resistance to Chinese communist political and economic bullying can be a much needed turning point in history. President Trump has a historic opportunity.
But what if Trump refuses to sign the bill? Indeed, the President has indicated that he might. In a Fox News interview on Friday, Trump claimed to have saved Hong Kong from “obliteration” by conditioning trade negotiations on Chinese restraint. There is speculation that Trump, balancing taking action on behalf of Hong Kong and the pending US-China trade deal, may not sign it on the “America First” rationale; if the trade deal dies, US economic performance will suffer, and Trump’s own re-election in 2020 could well be jeopardized. Despite near unanimous Congressional support, voices from the foreign policy establishment worry that passage of the bill will harm relations with China. And of course, the Chinese regime has demanded that Trump reject the bill, and threatened dire consequences if he does not.
Vetoing the bill would be wrong – strategically, tactically, and morally.
If the experiences of the past 40 years have taught America anything about the Chinese regime, it is that America won’t survive 40 more years of Chinese aggression and American passivity. Indeed, at the present rate, the degree to which America can preserve its own freedoms and help protect others is shrinking daily before the power and aggression of China. Will America turn the tide before it is too late?
Tactically, turning America’s back on Hong Kong in an attempt to secure a trade deal with China makes no sense. The best Trump can hope is a phase one trade deal before the 2020 election. It’s almost certainly going to be a deal largely on Beijing’s terms: purchases, promises and lowering of tariffs on both sides, but not a deal that includes the reforms to the Chinese economy needed to create a fair relationship. China would want that phase one deal even if it felt insulted over Hong Kong. The Chinese Communist Party leaders are more pragmatic than their archaic, inflammatory revolutionary rhetoric suggests.
But most importantly, vetoing the bill would be a moral humiliation for the United States — a cave-in to a totalitarian regime compromising principles that are precious to the American people for an illusory short-term advantage, and a futile attempt at peace through appeasement.
Over the weekend, the people of Hong Kong showed their hand in local elections. Pro-democracy candidates won decisively over those supporting mainland policies, reducing their seats from 300 to only 59, thoroughly undermining Beijing propaganda claiming a majority of Hong Kongers oppose the freedom movement.
Will America, the world’s greatest democracy, stand by them? In Hong Kong, the Chinese Communist Party is conducting a Tiananmen 2.0 in slow-motion. But the United States and the international community cannot afford to react in a slow motion. Sign the bill, Mr. President.
Bonnie Leung is a major leader of Hong Kong Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), an umbrella organization consist of about 50 Hong Kong NGOs that has been playing a fundamental role in organizing the peaceful Anti-Extradition Protests in Hong Kong. She is also an elected member of the Eastern District Council of Hong Kong.
Jianli Yang, a Tiananmen veteran, former political prisoner of China, recipient of multiple international human rights awards, is founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China.
Aaron Rhodes is President of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe and Human Rights Editor of Dissident Magazine