The U.S. has long encouraged Hong Kong, an economically free and prosperous state, to let its residents exercise political and individual rights to the highest degree possible. To reaffirm that stance—and to address the erosion of freedom and rights in Hong Kong over the last couple of years—Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) recently reintroduced the Hong Kong Democracy and Human Rights Act.
Under the “one country, two systems” policy, Hong Kong is an autonomous region of China. This framework permits Hong Kong to pursue capitalist economic policies until at least 2047—the 50th anniversary of its return, by Britain, to Chinese sovereignty. It also lets Hong Kong retain some political autonomy. Citizens of Hong Kong have a limited form of democracy that allows for a quasi-independent government.
In recent years, however, China has begun to meddle in the private affairs of Hong Kong citizens, further restricting its autonomy. In late 2015, five booksellers and publishers were abducted from China, Hong Kong and Thailand; they subsequently turned up in Chinese custody. One Hong Kong bookseller, Lam Wing-kee, reported that, while in custody he was kept under constant surveillance and subjected to psychological torture. The abductions clearly curtailed the basic freedoms of Hong Kong citizens, thereby violating the “one country, two systems” policy.
The booksellers’ abductions came on the heels of the 2014 Umbrella Movement – spontaneous demonstrations calling for democracy, and in some instances, full independence, in Hong Kong. Led by elites and students, the Umbrella Movement was a response to China’s increased intervention in Hong Kong’s internal affairs. The Umbrella Movement resulted in occasionally violent clashes between citizens and law enforcement and contributed to deepening tensions over China’s involvement in Hong Kong’s political affairs.
Anson Chan, former chief secretary of Hong Kong, fears that if the world does not act to defend the autonomy of Hong Kong, the “one country, two systems” policy will exist in name only. While Hong Kong was formerly a British colony, the UK government has reneged on promises to defend and protect the rights of Hong Kong citizens.
Consequently, the burden to defend Hong Kong has fallen on the U.S. which has responded with legislative initiatives such as the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. If passed, current proposal would reinstitute an annual report on the state of democracy and human rights in Hong Kong, require certification that Hong Kong is sufficiently autonomous from the People’s Republic of China to merit separate treatment under future U.S. law and agreements, and impose sanctions against those who abducted—or helped in the abduction of—the booksellers.
“We are at a watershed moment in Hong Kong,” said Sen. Rubio.
“Will Hong Kong be able to maintain its cherished autonomy as promised 20 years ago when the British handover occurred, or will Beijing continue chipping away at the democratic institutions and basic rights which have long distinguished Hong Kong from mainland China?"
The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act would help ensure the vitality of freedom in Hong Kong. And help is definitely needed.
Hong Kong has always ranked #1 in The Heritage Foundation’s annual Index of Economic Freedom. But its economic freedom score has fallen in each of the last two years, largely due to corruption in the government and deterioration in the rule of law. It is essential that freedom be defended now before it deteriorates too significantly.
As Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch noted, “The best hope for a rights-respecting China is in Hong Kong, where rights already exist and only need to be protected and preserved, rather than created anew.”
If the international community does not defend the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong’s citizens, there is little hope that freedom and respect for human rights can take root elsewhere in China. Better to preserve rights in Hong Kong now than to let them erode further and then struggle to revive them later.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes.