'Hong Kongers Should Be Allies of the United States': Congress Urged to Enable Sanctions Against Chinese Officials Who Threaten Territory's Autonomy

While Congress has been on vacation, Hong Kong has been convulsing. What began as a protest against extradition legislation has grown into something much bigger—a mass movement against creeping influence from mainland China pitting activists against the might of Beijing and its client government in Hong Kong.

This is a truly modern protest. Leaderless, the crowds direct each other using message boards and encrypted messaging apps. The huge marches and peaceful sit-ins are documented and shared on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, transmitting the protesters' message to the world.

The intransigence and violence of Hong Kong police and their allies is also captured in real-time and spread around the globe, eliciting sympathy and outrage from the international community.

Protesters have also been carrying American and British flags, brandishing them as a direct challenge to China's rule over the former British colony. The flags symbolize the kind of political freedom's Hong Kong people so desperately want, but are also used to grab the attention of international audiences.

Foreign support can have a real impact, both in the corridors of power and on the streets in Hong Kong. Ahead of the G20 summit in Japan, for example, activists crowdfunded hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for a mass awareness campaign in the world's major newspapers, urging nations to "Stand with Hong Kong at G20."

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Chinese military personnel are pictured training at Shenzhen Bay stadium in Shenzhen near the border with Hong Kong in China's southern Guangdong province on September 9, 2019. Troops have been gathering near the border amid Chinese threats it could directly intervene in the unrest if necessary. STR/AFP/Getty Images/Getty

Though Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has fully withdrawn the bill, this is but one of the five demands of the protesters. Activists also want Lam to step down, an independent inquiry into police brutality, amnesty for all those arrested and universal suffrage in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong government—with Beijing standing firm behind it—is unlikely to give in to all four remaining demands, no matter how impressive the protest movement. But international support will be vital in ensuring the government does not resort to more drastic means of suppression.

A bipartisan project

U.S. lawmakers have been universally supportive of the protesters in Hong Kong. In the Senate, and in the House, leaders of both parties have praised the activists for their pursuit of human rights, government accountability and democracy.

President Donald Trump has even weighed in, though some observers have argued he has not done nearly enough to support the protesters. Last month, Trump called on President Xi Jinping to approach the Hong Kong issue humanely or risk the collapse of a future deal to end the ongoing trade war Washington and Beijing, though ongoing discussions are proving fruitless.

New draft legislation—the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019—could now give lawmakers the ability to impose sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials who commit human rights abuses and undermine the territory's autonomy. In a divided Washington, support for pro-democracy activists on the front line of China's rise offers a rare bipartisan project.

The legislation would represent the most significant international support of the movement to date, and will no doubt be cause for concern among the pro-Beijing officials seeking to suppress the unrest.

The graph below, provided by Statista, shows how support for Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has plummeted in the two years since she assumed office.

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Support for Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Statista

This is the fourth time the bill has been introduced. The first iteration was in 2014, amid the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement. It was brought forward again in 2016 and 2017, but also did not make its way through Congress. But with the international focus on Hong Kong and frosty relations between Washington and Beijing, 2019 looks like its best chance yet.

Among the sponsors of the act are New Jersey Republican Rep. Chris Smith and Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio.

As their colleagues prepared to return to The Hill, the lawmakers are urging Congress to pass the legislation into law.

In an email sent to Newsweek, Rubio explained that the legislation would "target officials who have undermined Hong Kong's autonomy and hold them accountable through the use of sanctions." He stressed the need for the U.S. to "defend Hong Kong's autonomy from Beijing and uphold the defense of human rights in the region."

Smith—the prime sponsor of the bill—said the legislation was robust and "sends a strong message of support to the freedom loving people of Hong Kong who are threatened by Beijing's crackdown."

"Congress must pass the bill as soon as we return in September and show the world that we stand united with the people of Hong Kong who are rightly seeking to maintain the autonomy and fundamental freedoms promised them by the Chinese Communist Party," he added.

Though Smith welcomed the withdrawal of the extradition bill, he noted that the movement has grown far beyond the initial grievance. "The demonstrations have become about the future of Hong Kong's freedoms and autonomy," he said.

"Addressing these grievances will take more than a withdrawn extradition bill. The root of the Hong Kong people's dissatisfaction is the shrinking of its open society and political breathing space. These are the things that must be recognized and addressed for trust and the 'One Country, two systems' model to be restored."

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A protester is surrounded by U.S flags as she demonstrates outside the U.S consulate on September 8, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Carl Court/Getty Images/Getty

Smith voiced concern at the increasing violence used by police to try and suppress the movement and the "repeated threats of intervention" from Beijing. "The Hong Kong and mainland Chinese governments are alone responsible for the legitimate grievances expressed by the protesters and they alone can end the protests by addressing their demands," he added.

If the legislation passes, it will give the Chinese government more ammunition to paint the protests as Western-directed rioting, a suggestion Smith dismissed as "cowardly propaganda."

"Hong Kongers are fighting for freedom"

Jeffrey Ngo, chief researcher for the pro-democracy Demosisto organization in Hong Kong and the group's U.S. representative, told Newsweek that Western support for the anti-government movement would be a welcome boon to protesters.

"Overall, I would say that Hong Kongers would love to have seen more support from the international community, even just speaking out," Ngo explained.

A mass demonstration at the U.S. consulate on Sunday proves Ngo's point. Tens of thousands of protesters swamped the area around the facility, waving American flags and placards calling for Congress and the Trump administration to lend them more support and pass the bill.

Ngo acknowledged that U.S. leaders have spoken out against China, and stressed that what is happening in the territory should concern the international community.

"Hong Kong is a very cosmopolitan territory, and many countries have financial and economic stakes in Hong Kong," he said. "I would love to have seen more countries being vocal about safeguarding Hong Kong's role in the world."

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A protester dressed as the Statue of Liberty walks during a march to petition the U.S. Consulate on September 08, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Chris McGrath/Getty Images/Getty

If the legislation passes, Ngo suggested it "would be tremendously helpful" in pressuring Hong Kong's elites, perceived by many as facilitating Beijing's encroachment while also enjoying the financial and political freedoms afforded by living in the territory.

"The frustration for ordinary Hong Kongers is that the people who are most responsible for turning Hong Kong into just another Chinese city and erasing Hong Kong's uniqueness in the world, tend to also be the people who have citizenship or residency abroad," Ngo said.

"So Hong Kongers who have no backup option should Hong Kong be ruined are facing the consequences of the actions of those who do have this kind of back-up option," he added.

"It is also just unacceptable, I think, for these kind of individuals—for example government officials, some of the business community that have remained silent—to do Beijing's bidding and erode Hong Kong's reputation as a liberal city, but then enjoy the benefits of being able to reside, or to live or to retire in democratic countries in the West."

These nations—particularly the U.S. and U.K.—Ngo stressed, "should stand up for the values of their countries and say that if those values are not defended in Hong Kong by these individuals then they should face consequences."

"I think these would be both symbolically and in actual terms helpful to Hong Kongers in the midst of our struggle," he said.

For Ngo, and for many other activists, the U.S. is a natural ally. "Hong Kongers should be allies of the United States," Ngo suggested. "Hong Kongers are fighting for freedom, fighting for democracy, fighting for human rights. These are values that the United States stands for against China, which is the largest authoritarian government in the world right now."

'Hong Kongers Should Be Allies of the United States': Congress Urged to Enable Sanctions Against Chinese Officials Who Threaten Territory's Autonomy | Politics