Over the past several months, we have witnessed remarkable courage in the streets of Hong Kong. What began as limited protest against a single act of pro-Beijing legislation now has the markings of existential struggle, if not revolution. As the people of Hong Kong understand, the city government’s proposed extradition bill — enabling removal of its citizens to mainland China for trial — was not an isolated event. It was, instead, a sign of things to come, the gradual encroachment of Beijing upon the rights and freedoms promised Hong Kong for 50 years in the 1997 Basic Law. These constitutional guarantees — negotiated with the United Kingdom before it transferred the city — have come steadily under attack as the clock ticks ineluctably towards midnight. When 2047 dawns, Beijing surely wants the ‘transition’ to be ‘seamless’, a mere legal technicality ratifying what would be, by then, a matter of practical fact: full control and dominance of Hong Kong by the Communist, mainland power.
President Trump has pulled his punches thus far. He has not taken a tough, public line against Beijing on human rights or fully acknowledged the protesters’ legitimate grievances. Interestingly, however, in a culture where rhetoric usually outpaces action — one recalls Michelle Obama holding a makeshift sign, asking Boko Haram terrorists to ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ — Trump has taken actions that place real pressure on Beijing. It may be that Trump’s main, or only, contention with China rests with its economic abuses — among other things, its currency manipulation and the pilfering of American intellectual property. Whatever his motivations, though, Trump’s actions in the current trade dispute have the potential to evolve beyond economic matters, important as they are.
It is likely already the case that Trump’s trade war has energized the protests in Hong Kong. Protesters rightly intuit that Beijing, for all its bluster, has been knocked off kilter. The rising Bully of Asia is finally receiving a reciprocal dose of strength; America has finally questioned China’s way of doing business. The people of Hong Kong are now questioning it, too. These are people who, of course — notwithstanding the spirit of the United Nations Charter and the postwar, international settlement in favor of self-determination — were never consulted about their own governance in the first place.
The time is now right for America to enlarge the scope of its negotiations with Beijing. Issues of economics and human rights in China cannot be so easily separated. The oppressive rule that the Chinese Communist party employs to ruthless effect in domestic affairs is mirrored in its foreign and trade policies, its bullying of nation-states and corporations alike. The abuses are many. As the Wall Street Journal has detailed, ‘[H]ardly any neighbor of China — with the notable exception of an increasingly friendly and dependent Russia — has been spared its wrath in recent years.’ In one glaring example, China sought to hinder access to ‘[l]andlocked Mongolia . . . after the Dalai Lama visited the country. In the last week, the CEO of Cathay Pacific — the flagship airline of Hong Kong — was forced to resign following a pressure campaign by Beijing. As the BBC reported, after Cathay Pacific allowed staff to participate in the protests, ‘China’s state-run press fueled a #BoycottCathayPacific hashtag, which trended on Chinese social media.’
Perhaps most concerning, from the perspective of its trading partners, is Beijing’s contempt for its international agreements. It is on record denigrating the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, the guarantee of Hong Kong’s continued freedoms after the transfer of power. According to a Beijing spokesman, the Declaration is today nothing more than ‘a historical document [that] no longer has any practical significance.’ This is absolutely false. The Declaration, filed at the UN, is binding under international law. Beijing, in pushing it aside, makes concrete and explicit the threat posed to Hong Kong.
Such are the tactics of the Chinese regime. Regardless of what any, final Sino-American trade pact might state, if it is to be worth the paper on which it is written, Beijing’s behavior must fundamentally change. Otherwise, how can the US be confident that its agreement will be honored any more than the Joint Declaration or the WTO rules that Beijing brazenly breaks? Beijing will violate any terms, or break any deal, when it sees advantage — and when no one stands in the breach to stop it. America’s prosperity as a trading partner with China is, therefore, directly linked to the freedoms, transparency, and rule of law guaranteed Hong Kong. Aside from their moral claim and content, these matters are not peripheral to our own self-interest. To stand with Hong Kong is, in the terms of President Trump, to put America First.
Trump’s trade war with China and the Hong Kong protests have thus aligned, and most likely not by coincidence. There is yet a third event underway, apparently disconnected but loaded with potential to shape the future. That event is Brexit. The United Kingdom is, of course, the power which ceded Hong Kong to Beijing in 1997. The time for discussing whether this was right or necessary has passed. What has not passed is the memory of the people of Hong Kong themselves, a memory of a free and open society. It is the memory of impartial rule of law. These proud people know their history and demand their rights as heirs to the English common law tradition. More than 20 years on, they boldly fly the Union Jack in defiance of Communist sovereignty. To date, Britain, like America, has offered a muted response. It needs to do more, not least because of the 1984 Declaration it signed. Brexit presents an opportunity for it do so, and to stand in solidarity with the people of its former possession.
If Britain keeps its nerve and actually leaves the EU, it can establish new, separate trading partnerships with the US and China. (It currently trades with both under standard WTO terms as part of the EU.) In each of their respective free trade deals with China, America and Britain should demand respect for Hong Kong’s freedoms and compliance with the terms of the Joint Declaration. Such deals must be made reviewable for compliance on an ongoing basis.
Of course, if this posture is adopted, we can expect Beijing to retaliate. It will likely expand its tariffs, particularly those targeting Trump’s agricultural, electoral base. (This activity, already occurring, represents nothing less than election meddling and interference, a fact the American left needs to recognize). At the same time, though, a strong, new partnership with Britain could help offset the losses. Trump has already proven that American industry can rebound, that the US can become more self-reliant. A better, bilateral deal with the UK would promote industrial growth in both nations, producing enough new wealth to counter Chinese trade aggression, at least in part. Subsidies to affected sectors can be granted if necessary — not as narrow, isolationist economics, but rather in pursuit of long-term, international strategy. In this way, America and Britain — by making the same demands upon Beijing, while mutually reinforcing each other’s own economies — can proceed together for the betterment of the global order.
Beijing naturally claims that ‘unrest’ in Hong Kong is a domestic issue. It is not. The Beijing government has been ushered into the halls of international respectability — granted full diplomatic recognition by the US and, much earlier, by Britain. It has been granted Most Favored Nation status as a member of the WTO. And it was entrusted with Hong Kong under binding agreements assuring the continuance of a British-style, common law legal system and freedoms unknown to Communism. These commitments — undertaken by Beijing in the 1984 Declaration, codified in the Basic Law — are far more than local in nature. They are treaty promises made to Britain and declared before the international community. The world — starting with the US and Britain — must hold Beijing to its word and hold it to account.
2047 will come, and the future is at stake. Beijing knows, in the information age, that three more decades of freedom in Hong Kong could have ripple effects far beyond the Special Administrative Region of the city itself. There is a reason for Beijing’s impatience. There is an equal reason for our resolve. The people of Hong Kong need us and, whether we care to admit it or not, we need them, too. Their hopes are our own.
Augustus Howard is a Research Associate at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge. He holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge and a JD from Duke University School of Law. He has also served as a Judicial Clerk on the United States 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.