Why the US Should Stand Up for Hong Kong

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On February 12, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond blamed China for the disappearance of Lee Bo, a British citizen from Hong Kong, declaring it a “serious breach” of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the treaty governing Hong Kong’s return to communist mainland rule in 1997.

Lee is one of five men connected to the Hong Kong-based Mighty Current Media publishing house and its bookstore in the Causeway Bay neighborhood who, since last fall, have disappeared and subsequently reappeared on the mainland in official custody.

On February 4, mainland authorities acknowledged holding Lam Wing Kee, Cheng Chi Ping, and Lui Por, on unspecified “illegal activities.” On January 17, Gui Minhai, who had disappeared from his Thailand beach home in October, appeared on Chinese state television and gave an emotional “confession,” in which he said he voluntarily returned to the mainland to face responsibility for a 2003 drunk driving incident.

As for Lee, Hammond said, “The full facts of the case remain unclear, but our current information indicates that Lee was involuntarily removed to the mainland without any due process under Hong Kong SAR law.”

London has taken an important step. However, if it is serious about defending Hong Kong, it will have to ask other democracies for support that has not so far been forthcoming. Even before the formal transfer of sovereignty, but while China’s meddling was already underway, the Clinton Administration insisted its hands were tied. Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord told Congress in 1996, “The United States does not offer legal interpretations of agreements to which it is not a party,” adding, “by the way, the British have not stated their legal position.”

Now that Great Britain has said the treaty is breached, the United States must go beyond its February 1 expression of “deep concern” over Lee and the fate of the other men. It should now be more difficult for the Obama Administration to avoid implementing the key provision of the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act. That law directs the President to withdraw Hong Kong’s separate treatment in some economic and trade matters if he finds it to be insufficiently autonomous.

No one really wants that to happen. That was the point. The law was drafted by Congress as a kind of “poison pill”. As written, the law directs the President to hurt Hong Kong, rather than the central government in Beijing. The President could fulfill his duty instead by seeking amendments to the law to make the penalty fall on those responsible. Congress should also look into other measures, for example by expanding visas for independent journalists and democracy programs. Hong Kong is a battleground for democracy in China and U.S. policy should reflect that.

London and Washington must also resist the temptation to view the case of Lee and Gui narrowly. Their fates have implications well beyond the preservation of Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms, as important as they are. Beijing’s actions are part and parcel of its projection of power beyond borders, in violation of universal values and international law. While Beijing rebuffs criticism of its violations of human rights and authoritarian rule, it is interfering in other countries’ affairs in pursuit of its domestic repressive objectives. In Thailand, in addition to Gui, Beijing has also forcibly repatriated more than a hundred Uighurs, as well as two democracy activists Jiang Yefei and Dong Guanping. In Nepal, China has interfered with Kathmandu’s longstanding provision of a haven for Tibetan refugees.

London needs the United States on its side, but a broader coalition of democracies is necessary. Philip Hammond recently visited Japan to strengthen security cooperation, possibly in an effort to correct London’s tilt toward Beijing. This included Chancellor George Osborne’s stated desire to become China’s “best partner in the West,” a fawning reception of General Secretary Xi Jinping during his state visit in October, and its joining of the Beijing-founded Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank against Washington’s wishes.

Let’s not be naive. The UK may not intend to do much following the declaration of the breach. Prime Minister David Cameron declared business as usual after a parliamentary inquiry found that Russian President Vladimir Putin “probably” approved the assassination on British soil of the defector-spy Alexander Litvinenko. In the case of Hong Kong, however, Britain has international obligations as well as historic responsibility to 7.2 million people—their civil liberties, the rule of law, free market capitalism, and democratic development. According to Hammond, there are 3.7 million British passport holders in Hong Kong.

With Lee’s case, the British have apparently reached the limits of their tolerance, or perhaps just the limit of their rationalization that Chinese interference in Hong Kong has fallen within the letter if not the spirit of the Joint Declaration.

The cases of the missing booksellers have sent a chill through Hong Kong. Even if Great Britain doesn’t follow through on the logical consequences of declaring a breach in the Joint Declaration, the United States should.

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