As emotions run high in Hong Kong, tensions are also likely to boil over on the diplomatic front.
Hong Kong’s protesters, who have been taking to the streets in large numbers for months now, show no signs of backing down. As the movement has witnessed increased violence between those protesting and local authorities, it has also steadily internationalized.
The most recent manifestations of this internationalization of the Hong Kong protests include the testimonies of protest leaders before the U.S. Congress; the high-profile drama between the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the Chinese government and business partners over a tweet from the general manager of the Houston Rockets; Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) flying to Hong Kong to march in solidarity with protesters; ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, many from Southeast Asia, expressing their support and backing of a democratic Hong Kong; and protesters marching with U.S. flags, urging the U.S. Congress to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.
The U.S. House of Representatives has since unanimously passed the bill in a voice vote. The piece of legislation has now advanced to the Senate where it will likely receive bipartisan support. However, how the bill will fare once it reaches the president’s desk is unclear.
President Donald Trump’s position on Hong Kong has wavered. In August, after several months of protests, Trump signaled that the movement was an internal matter for China, telling members of the press that “that's between Hong Kong and that's between China, because Hong Kong is a part of China. They'll have to deal with that themselves. They don't need advice.”
Although he shared more forceful comments supporting the city in his address at the United Nations General Assembly in late September, a report emerged not 10 days later that Trump promised China’s Xi that he would remain silent on the Hong Kong protests as long as trade talks continued.
Amid a lack of clarity on the position within the U.S. executive branch, the U.S. Congress has sought to play a role in influencing U.S. policy vis-a-vis Hong Kong. But how exactly does this fit into the longer history between Hong Kong and Washington? What is the foundation of the U.S.-Hong Kong relationship and what does the historical record show of the nature of bilateral ties?
The United States has maintained a consular presence in the city since the middle of the 19th century when Hong Kong was still governed as a British colonial territory. However, as the UK began negotiations to return Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, the United States moved to enact legislation in the early 1990s that would ensure for the city’s special treatment as separate from mainland China. This legislation passed in 1992 as the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act.
The act stipulated that after the July 1997 handover, the United States “should play an active role in maintaining Hong Kong's confidence and prosperity, its role as an international financial center, and the mutually beneficial ties between the United States and Hong Kong.”
The act also specified that the change over to Chinese sovereignty should not affect the treatment of Hong Kong residents applying for visas or permanent residence in the United States.
Commercially, the United States would continue to treat Hong Kong as a separate territory from the mainland in economic and trade-related issues, including the respect of Hong Kong’s ongoing status as a separate customs territory and contracting party to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT, the precursor to the WTO); continued granting of most-favored-nation status for the city which extends nondiscriminatory trade policy, free exchange of the U.S. dollar, extending access to Hong Kong for sensitive technologing under the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls, the pursuit of a bilateral investment treaty, and protections for Hong Kong persons owning property in the United States.
U.S. policy would also continue to recognize Hong Kong-registered vehicles (ships and planes), U.S. commercial ships would be free to dock in the port of Hong Kong, U.S. authorities would also be able to negotiate renewal or new air service agreements directly with Hong Kong. The United States would also maintain separate cultural and educational exchanges with Hong Kong across a variety of cultural, education, and academic programs, including the Fulbright Program.
Lastly, the Hong Kong Policy Act bestowed on the president of the United States the authority to suspend the application of the law if the new Special Administrative Region (SAR) were to become “not sufficiently autonomous.”
Pursuant to the Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, the State Department submitted reports to Congress in 1993, annually from 1995 to 2007, and again in 2015, 2016, 2018, and 2019. These reports are intended to be assessments of the degree to which Hong Kong has remained sufficiently autonomous from mainland China to warrant its favorable treatment by the United States, particularly in regard to commercial policy. For example, amid the U.S.-China trade war, Hong Kong is not subject to the targeted sanctions against Chinese goods.
The new Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy bill seeks to amend the existing legislation that governs the nature of U.S.-Hong Kong relations. The legislation was first proposed in 2014 during the Umbrella Movements (also dubbed Occupy Central) when large numbers of Hong Kong protesters turned out to demand more transparent and democratic elections in the SAR. While the legislation had been introduced to both houses of the U.S. Congress on a number of occasions over the past five years, the House of Representatives finally took it to a vote in the fall of 2019.
Among the bill’s contents are provisions that would require the U.S. secretary of state to submit an annual report to Congress and certify that Hong Kong remains sufficiently autonomous to warrant its special treatment under U.S. policy, as well as to determine whether Hong Kong’s autonomy is eroding or not. The new revisions also could subject individuals responsible for undermining the SAR’s autonomy and fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong to U.S. sanctions, including the freezing of assets in the United States and the denial of entry. The act also presses the U.S. president to develop a strategy to protect both U.S. businesses and citizens from rendition to China.
This move reflects an emerging effort in Washington to take a stronger position vis-a-vis Beijing that extends beyond trade and economics. Earlier in October, the U.S. Commerce Department blacklisted more than two dozen Chinese public security bureaus and firms, including some of China’s top artificial intelligence companies, for their involvement in the treatment and detention of Uyghurs. Visa restrictions were also put in place against officials reportedly responsible for or complicit in the abuses in China’s northwestern Xinjiang. Separately, the U.S. State Department implemented new measures requiring Chinese diplomats to inform them in advance of any official trips within the United States.
These latest moves have elicited blustery responses from Beijing. With regard to the Hong Kong legislation, the Chinese government has expressed indignation and accused Washington of meddling in its domestic affairs. “If the relevant act were to become law, it would not only harm China's interests and China-U.S. relations, but would also seriously damage U.S. interests. China will definitely take strong countermeasures in response to the wrong decisions by the U.S. side to defend its sovereignty, security and development interests,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang.
As emotions continue to run high on the ground in Hong Kong, tensions are also likely to boil over on the diplomatic front. Interestingly, the foundational legal provisions that govern U.S.-Hong Kong relations appear to largely pertain to commercial interests. And yet, concerns over human rights have prompted U.S. lawmakers to seek out amendments. Questions over Hong Kong’s future have decidedly made a distinct shift from revolving purely around economics to broader issues of political freedoms.