China should commit to its promise to uphold Hong Kong’s autonomy until 2047.
Erosion of this promise has accelerated under Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 outlined a framework for how Hong Kong would operate for 50 years after Britain handed the city back to China in 1997. However, certain aspects, such as separate judicial, economic and governmental systems, have been slowly diluted.
The now-suspended 2019 extradition bill—which critics claim would have given Beijing the authority to extradite and try political dissidents residing in Hong Kong—was the last straw for many Hong Kongers. Their protests began against the bill, but demonstrators now demand greater democracy and controls.
In response, Beijing has flexed its muscles via thinly veiled threats to protesters, including footage of troops carrying out “anti-riot” exercises while speaking Cantonese (spoken in Hong Kong), and most recently conducting paramilitary exercises in Shenzhen, a city on the border with Hong Kong.
Many of the world’s democracies are on standby. Britain’s foreign secretary tweeted last week to condemn the violence and encouraged “constructive dialogue to find a peaceful way forward.” Britain also had banned sales of crowd-control equipment, such as tear gas, to Hong Kong police in June after early clashes between protesters and police. A statement by Canada and the European Union stressed support of Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy,” which almost immediately prompted the Chinese embassy in Ottawa to warn Canada to “stop meddling in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs.” The U.S. State Department released a statement urging Beijing to abide by its promise to the city.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong faces its 11th week of protests. Recently, an estimated 1.7 million peaceful demonstrators marched through the streets, according to organizers, after violent clashes that closed the Hong Kong International Airport. Tensions flared once more at a sit-in at a train station on Aug. 21.
President Donald Trump’s trade fight with China, as well as his lack of interest in having the United States be a leader in protecting human rights, has made him reluctant to get involved. However, many in Congress are sympathetic to the protesters. Trump also could suspend U.S. exports of crowd-control equipment to Hong Kong—a move for which there is bipartisan support. Trump seems wary of directly condemning Beijing, though after weeks of vague comments he finally did say he “would like to see Hong Kong worked out in a very humanitarian way” and that violent interference by China in Hong Kong would make it “very hard to deal” toward a solution to the trade war.
Even if Trump did voice a condemnation, it is doubtful that his words would stop China. The United States is not exactly a role model, having pulled out of international agreements such as the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In the rise of authoritarian forces around the world, the Trump administration once again is failing to be a beacon for democracy.