American uncertainty about Hong Kong was etched into its response from the very first day it reverted to Chinese control.
Then-secretary of state Madeleine Albright flew in for the 1997 celebration but made a point of snubbing one event. Voicing a fear that residents’ political freedoms might disappear, she skipped the opening of the new Hong Kong legislature.
That fear of lost autonomy is now materializing and, a quarter-century later, the United States is running into a hard deadline for picking a path on Hong Kong.
The main difference now is that the U.S., no longer the unrivalled superpower it was in 1997, is running low on options for influencing events within China.
As pro-democracy politicians get arrested and Beijing prepares a law expanding its control over the country’s free-market, free-speech enclave, CBC News reached out to a half-dozen North American authorities on China.
‘The beginning of the end of Hong Kong’s uniqueness’
When asked if the U.S. is still capable of affecting Hong Kong’s trajectory, Lynette Ong, an expert on China and authoritarian politics at Toronto’s Munk School, hesitated.
“Maybe. Maybe, possibly,” she said.
“I hate to say this, but I think it’s the beginning of the end of Hong Kong’s uniqueness.”
The general view of the experts contacted was that Washington still has several tools at its disposal. It can punish rights abusers with sanctions, grant U.S. visas to protesters, and threaten Hong Kong’s crucial trade status.
But they shared three warnings.
First, such actions might not work. Second, they might even rebound to harm the U.S. And, finally, there’s a high-ranking wild card: U.S. President Donald Trump.
Trump: the ultimate wild card
It’s still unclear if Trump cares about Hong Kong.
The president has sent mixed signals. On the one hand, he promised last week he’d react “very strongly” to any Beijing power-grab, and elaborated Tuesday, saying he’d have an “interesting” announcement within days. He’s also made standing up to China one of his main re-election arguments.
Yet there’s scant evidence of Trump taking an interest in the political freedoms of China’s semi-autonomous region.
President Obama should stay out of the Hong Kong protests, we have enough problems in our own country!Can’t even properly police White House
Just check his Twitter feed. He tweeted 118 times during the three-day Memorial Day long weekend. Hong Kong didn’t come up once.
Meanwhile, police turned a water cannon on thousands of pro-democracy protesters crowding the streets of Hong Kong as they marched against China’s move to ban secessionist and subversive activity.
WATCH | Thousands in Hong Kong protest China’s national security bill on Sunday:
“I don’t think [Trump] actually cares about the human rights stuff,” said Bill Bishop, a writer and businessman who’s lived in both capitals, Beijing and Washington, and who now writes a daily China newsletter, Sinocism.
What makes Trump unpredictable on this issue, Ong said, is his policy will be guided by his own short-term political calculations, not long-held values.
Lou Dobbs, a usually staunchly pro-Trump TV host, even erupted in frustration the other day over what he views as a mostly all-talk China policy from the White House.
What triggered the Fox host’s ire was the release of a national security strategy that he called “pablum” and “nonsense” with respect to China.
It included one reference to Hong Kong calling for continued autonomy, and promising to be “candid” about U.S. interests in the region.
The security strategy noted that Hong Kong has 85,000 American citizens and more than 1,300 American businesses.
Three potential U.S. policy tools
A former Canadian ambassador to China, David Mulroney, said it’s still possible for democracies to influence the course of events in Hong Kong.
He said it’s imperative to push back and buy time for Hong Kong residents to vote this fall in their legislative elections, which might allow them to send a strong pro-democracy message.
“[These Beijing actions would be] the final nail in the coffin in terms of Hong Kong’s autonomy,” Mulroney said.
“It’s very late in the day. But it’s not too late.”
Mulroney identified three broad sets of actions the U.S. and allies might take:
— Migration: Protesters should be reassured, Mulroney said, that they would be allowed to enter the U.S. if they have been arrested for political dissent.
Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien said in a weekend interview with NBC that he expects an exodus of financial capital and human talent from Hong Kong: “You’re … going to have a terrible brain drain.”
Bishop, however, said he doubts Trump would open the immigration floodgates — he’s actually restricting immigration during the pandemic.
— Sanctions: Mulroney said the U.S. and allies could freeze assets and deny entry to rights-violators.
Bonnie Glaser of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said there could be targeted sanctions against entities and individuals who violate the terms of the 1984 U.K.-China agreement.
The agreement promised Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy for 50 years after the transfer, meaning until 2047.
— Stripping Hong Kong’s status: Under the 1992 U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act, the United States treats the region as distinct from China. The agreement allows for freer trade and travel.
Now, under a U.S. law passed recently with near-unanimous support, the State Department must report each year to Congress on whether Hong Kong still deserves that special status, based on its current political, media and legal freedoms.
Stripping that status would be “the nuclear option,” Glaser said, triggering a chain-reaction of consequences for businesses and individuals.
Canadians would feel it, too, Ong said.
Any pension fund, capital market or business with interests in Hong Kong would be affected.
“That would have quite massive ramifications. That’s not a decision that should be taken lightly,” Ong said. “It has implications not only for the United States — but for everybody. For you and me.”
The death of Hong Kong?
Will any of this scare China’s president, Xi Jinping, into reversing course?
“To be honest, not much at this point [would make a difference],” Bishop said.
“The U.S., the international community, can condemn and punish. But I think it’s very unlikely — if in fact not totally impossible — that any such punishment will actually lead to Beijing changing its decision or modifying its behaviour.”
The author of a just-released book on Hong Kong, Jeffrey Wasserstrom, is equally skeptical. He says the Chinese Community Party mainly cares about domestic opinion.
And what Chinese people are already hearing from state-controlled media is that foreigners are stirring up the Hong Kong protests, said the University of California professor and historian.
Wasserstrom said international pressure might once have had greater impact. His book, Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, isn’t entirely pessimistic about the city’s future.
Wasserstrom’s book begins with a striking contrast. He compares Hong Kong and West Berlin, fellow Cold War hubs, beach-heads for free expression and free markets against a sea of authoritarianism.
American presidential lore lionizes the speeches John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan gave in Berlin, where a wall fell; communism crumbled; and the U.S. emerged as an uncontested power.
Now the world awaits the U.S. response — as Hong Kongers install virtual private internet networks at a frenzied pace, fearing the rise of a new digital iron curtain.