Hong Kong may sound remote and exotic to many Americans, but what happens there affects many here and its continued success and prosperity is in our national interest. So when China, Hong Kong’s ruler for 17 years, behaves with truculence toward this former British colony, the Obama administration should do better than shrug its shoulders and say Beijing knows best.
Unfortunately that is exactly what the administration did last week after China flexed its muscles in reaction to a pro-democracy demonstration by hundreds of thousands in Hong Kong on July 1. China put 500 marchers and five of the protest’s leaders into prison.
But asked last week at her briefing what the State Department’s opinion was on the matter, spokesman Marie Harf had this exchange with a reporter:
QUESTION: Should Beijing be listening to what’s happening in Hong Kong? Should they be taking note of these cries for greater democracy?
MS. HARF: Well, I’m sure they are.
QUESTION: You think they are?
MS. HARF: Not for me whether to say if they should or not.
Well, not quite. First, Ms. Harf should not be so sure that China is heeding the wave of discontent in Hong Kong—all appearances are to the contrary, in fact—and the U.S. does have a lot of say on the matter, if it chooses to.
China after all pledged to the world that it would respect the rights of Hong Kong’s people after it received sovereignty of the territory from Britain in 1997. Under the formulation of “One Country, Two Systems,” China promised the 7.1 million mostly ethnic Chinese people in Hong Kong would enjoy the same rights as most liberal democracies after it took over, even as the 1.3 billion people in mainland China itself continue to have their liberties severely restricted by Chinese Communist Party rule. That was the “two systems” part after Hong Kong became part of “One Country”—China.
These rights China spelled out in detail in the Joint Declaration, an international treaty filed with the United Nations. They would include “Rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief.”
So, yes, the State Department can and should speak out. A financial center in one of the deepest natural harbors in the South China Sea, Hong Kong is home to offices for some 1,400 U.S. companies, most of them regional offices or Asian headquarters. We also had the largest trade surplus with Hong Kong, which is home to about 60,000 expat Americans.
The relevant law here, in case Harf cares to have a look, is the 1992 US-Hong Kong Policy Act. It includes the following key sections:
Support for democratization is a fundamental principle of United States foreign policy. As such, it naturally applies to United States policy toward Hong Kong. This will remain equally true after June 30, 1997.
The human rights of the people of Hong Kong are of great importance to the United States and are directly relevant to United States interests in Hong Kong.
In an Issue Brief today, The Heritage Foundation calls on President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and the Congress to publicly condemn China’s behavior and make clear to Beijing that the world is watching. Hong Kong is, and has been for many years, the freest economy in the world in The Heritage Foundation’s and The Wall Street Journal’s Index of Economic Freedom. We’d hate to see China interfere with this success story.