This unique hybrid citizenship was always bound to be unstable so long as China remained an authoritarian, one-party state. Hong Kong’s wealth and freedom were always an implicit repudiation of the Communist Party’s aspirations. If Hong Kongers could benefit without the party’s control, why couldn’t the rest of China? Conversely, for Hong Kong citizens, if they could prosper without direct Chinese rule, why not go all the way and become a Western-style democracy like Taiwan — culturally Chinese with a Western-style political economy? The conflict was clear to anyone following this gambit: Either China had to become more like Hong Kong, or Hong Kong had to become more like China.
Under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s leadership, China has chosen the second approach. It tried to do this subtly at first, pushing Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader, Carrie Lam, to endorse measures that would extend Chinese control over the rambunctious city. But Hong Kong’s democracy movement opposed these measures and took to the streets in protest.
Those protests captured the world’s attention last year. For months, hundreds of thousands of Kong Kongers risked their lives and their livelihoods by protesting efforts by the city’s pro-Beijing leaders to extend C
hina’s direct power over their citizens. Against all expectation, they won: The proposed law allowing Hong Kongers to be extradited to China was shelved, and pro-democracy candidates won overwhelmingly in the city’s elections for community councilors.
China is now using its power to push through changes directly. Bypassing Hong Kong’s government, China’s government is pushing measures through its parliament to allow Chinese state security forces to be stationed in Hong Kong, permit extradition of dissidents to Communist China and revamp Hong Kong’s education system to instill pro-Beijing views in children. If these measures are passed, Hong Kong’s separate political status will be a mere fig leaf covering the reality of Communist despotism.
The United States cannot stop China from doing this, but it can fight back. Hong Kong benefits from visa-free travel from the United States and lower tariffs than the rest of China. This separate treatment is justified because of Hong Kong’s unique status. If that status changes, however, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act allows the United States to unilaterally revoke those privileges. President Trump should invoke that law if the Chinese measures take hold, as it will be clear that Hong Kong no longer has a genuinely separate system to protect.
The United States should go further than this if China does not relent. More than 3 million Hong Kongers who were residents of the city before China took over in 1997 hold passports issued by the United Kingdom. The United States should offer these people the right to emigrate to the United States as political refugees, holding any Hong Konger with such a passport to automatically qualify. It could also attract younger immigrants by extending refugee status to people born in Hong Kong after 1997 who also hold a Hong Kong passport. This would give Hong Kong democracy advocates a lifeline and encourage mass emigration in the event of further repression. Hong Kong’s value to China would drop considerably if its entrepreneurial people left and the city itself would no longer attract U.S. investment.
China’s Communist leaders are again showing the world their true colors with their plans to essentially end Hong Kong’s special freedoms. The United States should stand up for its democratic values and stand with Hong Kong’s citizens.