It’s clear that today’s Chinese government will not give Hong Kong the freedoms it was guaranteed when the United Kingdom turned its colony over to the mainland in 1997. China promised it would maintain its liberties for 50 years; Hong Kong is instead experiencing political strangulation in less than half of that time. Nothing the United States or its allies can do will reverse that fact in the near term.
That doesn’t mean we should do nothing. The United States never fully recognized Soviet rule over its satellite nations in Eastern Europe. Rhetorical support for freedom did not mean the Soviets would withdraw immediately, but it did keep the flames of freedom alive in the hearts of Eastern Europeans. When the moment struck in the late 1980s as the Soviet Union started to collapse, nonviolent resistance to Communist rule forced the Soviets out, freeing the captive nations without a shot fired.
The United States should employ a similar strategy today. At minimum, it can use communications technology to broadcast real news and messages of freedom to Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese. In the Cold War, this meant using Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America to reach people behind the Iron Curtain. In the digital age, it should mean much more. Radio Free Asia’s budget and mission should be dramatically expanded as a first step in combating Chinese totalitarianism in its own backyard.
Economic sanctions and restrictions are also appropriate. The Biden administration recently banned the importation of solar panel material from a Chinese company accused of benefiting from slave labor in the Muslim-dominated province of Xinjiang. A similar step for Hong Kong would be to extend existing sanctions against a few Hong Kong individuals and firms much more broadly. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan applied a wide variety of sanctions against Poland’s Communist government when it declared martial law to suppress the independent Solidarity trade union, including suspending the rights of Poland’s state airline to land in U.S. airports. Similar measures, including perhaps suspending the landing rights of Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong Airlines, would show both Beijing and Hong Kong’s nominally separate leadership that they will pay a serious price for their suppression of freedom.
U.S. leadership could also make Hong Kong’s political prisoners a key element in broader U.S.-China relations. American presidents regularly sought the release of prominent Soviet dissidents and tied improvement in relations to improvement in the conditions that dissidents faced within the Soviet Union. President Biden should demand the release of prominent pro-democracy figures such as entrepreneur Jimmy Lai as part of ongoing discussions with the Chinese and Hong Kong governments.
The United States could go even further. In January, Britain offered Hong Kongers who hold a special passport the opportunity to flee their now repressive city and become British citizens. By mid-February, around 5,000 Hong Kongers had already taken advantage of this law. More are likely to do so now that freedom of the press has been effectively eliminated. President Biden could join Britain and offer our shores as a refuge for Hong Kongers desperate to live freely.
China’s rise as a global power has only been possible because of American forbearance. The United States led the effort to make China part of the global economy, largely based on the belief that greater wealth and exposure to Western ideas would weaken the last major Communist state from within. We now know that this won’t happen without sustained pressure, which only has bite if it carries economic consequences. China’s reneging on the promises it made to Hong Kongers that they could keep their democratic freedoms is only one of the obvious examples of the Communist Party’s perfidy — a perfidy that is financed by American dollars.
Hong Kong’s freedom is being snuffed out. It is against our values and our interests to remain a bystander.