This week, the president signed an act supporting protestors in the city of Hong Kong. The act promises sanctions and restrictions on those who persecute residents of Hong Kong. It requires the State Department to assess whether Hong Kong is truly autonomous, thus able to remain a crucial trading partner.
The act was passed unanimously by both houses of Congress and marked a moral victory for Hong Kong’s protest movement, which started in June. It comes at a tricky time, as our administration engages in delicate trade talks with China.
You’ve probably seen photos of protestors in Hong Kong waving American flags. Basically, they are fighting to remain independent from communist China.
Hong Kong is a large peninsula dangling off China’s southern border. Most of Hong Kong’s border is coastal, making it a prime trading destination.
The British controlled part of Hong Kong for 150 years, and in 1898, China “leased” the rest of Hong Kong to the British for 99 years. Basically, China said, “You can hold on to this, but we might want it back later.”
Hong Kong became one of the most significant manufacturing hubs in the world. Today, it is the United States’ second-largest trade partner, receiving $50 billion in goods and services from Washington last year.
Culturally, Hong Kong became a haven for people suffering persecution in mainland China. It grew into its own identity that is uniquely Hong Kong and not Chinese.
As the lease’s end came into sight, Britain and China struck a deal that Hong Kong would be returned to China in 1997 – however, it would retain a high degree of autonomy for 50 years. Though Hong Kong would be owned by China, it could keep operating in the Western style.
This “one country, two systems” principle allowed Hong Kong to establish its own legal system and human rights. For instance, it is one of the few places in China where people can memorialize the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Hong Kong is a much freer place than China, but China is chipping away at these freedoms by undermining the election of pro-democracy legislators, restricting voting rights, and pressuring journalists and artists to censor their work.
In 2014, the Chinese government declared it would allow Hong Kong the right to vote for its own leaders, but these leaders would be hand-picked by the Chinese government. You can bet Hong Kong didn’t like that.
The current protest movement ignited back in the spring, in reaction to a Chinese bill that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited back to China. Of course, Hongkongers saw this for what it was – a legal precedent that would allow the Chinese government to simply snatch anyone it wanted to and generally sow fear among the Hong Kong population.
The Chinese government withdrew the bill in September, but protesters continued to speak out against Chinese overreach. The Hong Kong Polytechnic University saw the most violent protest, which claimed several lives.
It’s powerful to see people abroad associate our country with freedom and human rights. The people of Hong Kong probably don’t know or care so much about our tireless political infighting. It’s sobering to serve as a symbol for persecuted people.
I just hope we can live up to it.