Reprinted from the Dallas Morning News Aug. 23.
In an editorial published the day after the Fourth of July, we praised President Donald Trump for striking to the heart of the matter regarding Hong Kong’s summer of mass protests. “Well, they’re looking for democracy,” the president said, “And I think most people want democracy. Unfortunately, some governments don’t want democracy. But that’s what it’s all about. It’s all about democracy.”
Beijing called the president’s statement “gross interference in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs.” We called it “one of his finer moments.” Seven weeks later, with People’s Republic of China troops massed just outside Hong Kong and the city’s widespread protests showing no signs of abating, what’s needed from what we once called “the leader of the Free World” is leadership that matches the moral, economic, and national-security stakes.
To his credit, even while tweets on other topics draw fire at home, Trump has suggested Chinese President Xi Jinping hold face-to-face talks with the leaders of the protest movement, and called on him to find a “humanitarian” resolution to the crisis. He’s even backed away from the tenets of his “America First” foreign and economic policies and made it clear that it would be “much harder” for the U.S. to end its trade dispute and sign a deal with China if President Xi “did something violent” in Hong Kong.
The president’s statements, along with the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, are moves in the right direction. Recently introduced by Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R.-Fla., the bill states “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 (and) serve as a basis for Hong Kong’s continued economic prosperity.”
It also states “Hong Kong must remain sufficiently autonomous from the People’s Republic” and that the U.S. supports “the democratic aspirations of the people of Hong Kong, as guaranteed to them by … the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.”
We urge Congress to pass the act and President Trump to sign it into law. The legislation would hold Chinese officials accountable for — and possibly deter — the suppression of human rights in Hong Kong. It would also leave no doubt it is official U.S. policy “to support the robust exercise by residents of Hong Kong of the rights to free speech and the press” as well as to help “ensure that all residents of Hong Kong are afforded freedom from arbitrary or unlawful arrest, detention, or imprisonment.”
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What began as spontaneous protests against a bill that would have allowed extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China has grown into a mass movement calling on Beijing to implement the greater democratic freedoms — including universal suffrage — promised under the “one country, two systems” framework agreed to before the 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule.
As Martin Lee, the founding chairman of the Democratic Party of Hong Kong, told us in a recent interview, “Universal suffrage is something promised in the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s constitution). It is also clearly stated in the Basic Law, explained Lee, that China’s central government should not “interfere in the internal administration of the affairs of Hong Kong,” So, fundamentally, said Lee, he and the protestors are merely “asking for what is already promised” by Beijing.
Another way of putting it is that Beijing’s broken promises and clear violation of Hong Kong’s autonomy and the rights of its residents under the Basic Law has pushed the so-called Special Administrative Region to a tipping point. Will the “one country, two systems” formula enshrined in China’s constitution, Hong Kong’s Basic Law, and the Joint Declaration between China and Great Britain finally be fully honored? Or will it be shattered in a Tiananmen Square-like assault on the people of Hong Kong — and indeed freedom-loving people everywhere?
We urge our lawmakers and our president to do all they can to make sure it is the former. This is where we wish the United States remained a party to the Trans-Pacific Partnership so that it would have an additional avenue to pressure China.
Getting China to a place where it recognizes international norms, including economic rights and property rights, would help our economy and our standing in the world. In any case, when it comes to what happens in Hong Kong the ultimate decision between liberty and tyranny lies with Beijing. But one should never underestimate the power of the United States when its leaders rally behind the cause of human freedom and rally others to their side.
Hong Kong’s history disproves any assertion that somehow freedom and democracy can’t work there.
And ongoing protests demonstrate that the people there understand the stakes. This is a pivotal moment in history, and one where the United States needs to stand with those standing for their own freedom.