Gloomy US Update on Hong Kong

Two decades after the 1997 handover by the British government of Hong Kong to the government in Beijing, the American prognosis for the territory has darkened significantly, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service dated Aug. 23.

The hard-hitting two-page report is precise and concise, highlighting six areas of democratic retrenchments along with pending US legislative responses. But passing any legislation about Hong Kong is unlikely to be on the minds of US lawmakers.

The US hasn’t always seen Hong Kong in a gloomy light. In a June 2007 report by the CRS, the US impression of Hong Kong was almost rosy, albeit with some concerns a decade after the handover:

In the 10 years that have passed since the reversion of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty, much has changed and little has changed. On the political front, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) has selected its first Chief Executive, only to have him step down and be replaced in a process not without some controversy.

Meanwhile, belated changes by the British in the makeup of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (Legco) were initially undone, but subsequent changes in the Legco selection process have brought things back nearly full circle to where they stood prior to the Handover. There is also unease about the independence of Hong Kong’s judicial system and the protection provided by Hong Kong’s Basic Law in light of decisions made by the Chinese government.

Similarly, the civil liberties of the people of Hong Kong remain largely intact. In part, this can be attributed to the increased politicization of the people of Hong Kong. The freedom of the press in Hong Kong is still strong, but also faces challenges — both on the legal front and from allegations of self-censorship on the part of the media owners reluctant to antagonize the People’s Republic of China. Yet, even with these challenges, many Hong Kong residents do not appear to perceive a decline in their civil liberties since 1997.

In sharp contrast as shown in the 2018 report for Congress by the same analyst, the US views of Hong Kong are almost pitch black: “Various actions taken by the China’s central government and the HKSAR government during Hong Kong’s first 20 years under Chinese sovereignty have raised doubts about China’s commitment to its apparent obligations under the Joint Declaration and its compliance with the provisions of the Basic Law.”

As summarized matter-of-factly by the 2018 report, China suppresses political expression in Hong Kong in the name of national security, restricts press freedom in Hong Kong by reportedly trying to cut off the advertising revenue streams of pro-democracy newspapers from local as well as foreign businesses, limits freedom of speech by openly pushing for the cancellation of a talk by a pro-independence activist, allegedly violates the Basic Law with security personnel operating in Hong Kong, challenges the independence of Hong Kong judiciary by creating an environment targeting democracy seekers and extinguishes hopes for democratic reforms including universal suffrage with the installation of pro-Beijing chief executive of Hong Kong.

The August 2018 report offers some basis for US lawmakers to consider possible legislative moves: “The pending Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2017 (H.R. 3856 and S. 417) would require the Secretary of State to provide an annual certification to Congress that Hong Kong is “sufficiently autonomous” to justify separate treatment from China. The bills also would reinstate an annual report to Congress on the status of Hong Kong. S. 417 would impose visa and financial restrictions on persons determined to be responsible for certain human rights violations in Hong Kong, and preclude the denial of U.S. entry visas to applicants who were arrested or detained for their participation in non-violent protests in Hong Kong in 2014.”

H.R. 3856,” the report notes, “would impose visa and financial restrictions on persons responsible for ‘the surveillance, abduction, detention, abuse, or forced confession’ of Gui Minhai, Lee Bo, and others related to their publishing company, as well as “any other journalist, publisher, writer, bookseller, or other resident in Hong Kong” connected with impinging on what free speech rights.”

The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2017, even if it is passed, is temperate in form and substance to say the least. But with the preoccupation of the November midterm elections, the probability for any bill to become law is not high to begin with, especially for one that would likely trigger rebuttals from Beijing complaining about foreign interference in its domestic affairs. In addition, President Trump is waging his trade war against China ostensibly about the US trade deficit with China.

Even though the US has a trade surplus with Hong Kong, realpolitik would likely crowd out any aspiration for democratic promotion because any US legislative move concerning the territory would likely make an already bad situation with China worse. Moreover, the special counsel investigation of any possible collusion between Trump and Russia in influencing the 2016 presidential election and related matters loom large in Washington, DC, generating daily and at times hourly frontpage headlines and sucking up almost all the political oxygen.

Thus, even if US lawmakers were to take the latest report to heart, not much else will happen in Congress that will offer any boost to democracy in Hong Kong in the near future.

The US House of Representatives did pass H. Res. 422 urging China to honor the “one country, two systems” regime on Nov. 1, 2017 so the possibility of more US legislative responses looks tantalizing. But the chance for the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2017 to pass is 4 percent. Hope springs eternal, but just don’t hold your breath in this case as things have changed.

Thaddeus Hwong (@policyquests) is an Associate Professor at York University, Canada.