Hong Kong 25 years later: Why it matters for the US

The fight for Hong Kong’s autonomy faces a grim future on
the 25th anniversary of the territory’s handover back to China from the United

What began on July 1, 1997, as a bold experiment seeking to
bring the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) more toward Western, liberal
democracies has instead served as a hard lesson in Beijing’s single-minded
pursuit of total control.

There are few options for President Biden and Congress to support
reversing Beijing’s rollbacks on the democratic freedoms, capitalist economy
and rule of law in Hong Kong. 

Its supporters urge political asylum for opposition figures
and mourn the dimming of the territory’s once bright light as a vibrant,
cosmopolitan center of culture and business that bridged the divide between
China and the West. 

“It should be a warning to everyone around the world that a
city of 7.5 million people who have enjoyed all the rights and autonomy that we
take for granted globally … can be stripped away and taken away overnight,”
said Samuel Chu, president of the Campaign for Hong Kong. 

“This crackdown doesn’t stop at the Chinese border or the
borders of Hong Kong,” he added.  

Beijing’s violations of Hong Kong’s independence, which was
supposed to stand for 50 years, also serve as a stark warning of the threats
facing Taiwan.

Top U.S. intelligence officials have said that Beijing’s goal is to undermine Taiwan
through diplomatic and economic pressure — but that it is also weighing a
military invasion as the island hardens its political and military defenses,
which are backed by Washington. 

 fellow for the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for
a New American Security, said that China’s breach of “one country, two systems”
for Hong Kong has sharpened the risks facing Taiwan and its democratic

The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which laid the groundwork
for Hong Kong’s handover from the U.K. to China 13 years later, stated that
Beijing would treat the territory as a special administrative region — part of
the larger country of China, but with its own separate, democratic system that
was developed over a century and a half of British colonial rule.

“‘One country, two systems’ eroded, sort of, like one goes
bankrupt, a little bit at a time and then all at once,” Stokes said.

“It’s really sharpened a set of views, not just in Hong
Kong, of course, but in Taiwan too, about what exactly closer political, legal,
economic, technological integration with China would look like and has really
made the choice quite stark.”

The Biden administration has elevated the Chinese Communist
government as one the greatest security challenges facing the U.S. in the 21st
century. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has inhibited the administration from
focusing more strongly on countering Beijing.

In Congress, Democrats and Republicans are united on the
need to confront China but have stalled in advancing landmark legislation aimed
at setting up the U.S. to counter the nation — militarily, technologically,
economically and diplomatically — for generations. 

“Let’s not wait any longer. Send it to my desk. I’ll sign
it,” Biden said in his State of the Union address to Congress this year. 

House and Senate lawmakers from both parties have been
meeting since April to hammer out bipartisan text for the U.S. Innovation and
Competition Act (USICA).

On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
said he would block advancing the USICA as long as Democrats were pursuing
their broad economic legislation without GOP buy-in.

“Let me be perfectly clear: there will be no bipartisan
USICA as long as Democrats are pursuing a partisan reconciliation bill,”
McConnell tweeted.

Sen. Todd
(R-Ind.), a co-sponsor of the first USICA that cleared the
Senate in 2021, called for passing bipartisan text “without any further delays”
in a statement to The Hill.

“When Beijing took over Hong Kong and crushed the brave Hong
Kongers rising up to defend their democracy, it served as a wake-up call to the
world that we must take the Chinese Communist Party at their word when they
discuss their ambitions,” Young said.

“Like Hong Kong, destroying Taiwan’s independence is not
theoretical or academic, but something that Beijing is determined to
accomplish. We must use this occasion to express our resolve that this cannot

Provisions related to Hong Kong in draft text of a House
bill include prohibitions on certain exports to the territory, funds to promote
democracy, monitoring of China’s interference in Hong Kong’s trade and
industrial policies and providing visas for Hong Kong dissidents who are
targets of the Chinese government.

“Hong Kong really represents the most potent and promising
base of resistance to the Communist regime in China,” Chu said. 

“It means preserving whatever memory, talent and people that
we can, either through supporting them in an overseas diaspora or supporting
what they’re doing underground.”

The CCP has accelerated its crackdown on Hong Kong’s
democratic freedoms and institutions most prominently since 2019, installing
pro-Beijing politicians in the territory and passing a National Security Law
(NSL) that criminalized vague offenses of terrorism, secession and subversion
with the maximum penalty, going as far as life in prison. 

More than 10,000 people were arrested when protesting the
NSL at that time, with more than 2,300 charged for crimes under the law and 200
convicted, as
documented in a report
 by the Congressional Research Service that was
published in March.

“The HKSAR [Hong Kong Special Administrative Region]
increasingly seems to be wielding the NSL as an instrument of political
repression, and has censored pro-democracy media outlets and arrested their
leadership and senior editorial staff,” the report states. 

Biden has so far maintained former President Trump’s 2020
executive order to suspend Hong Kong’s special status as separate from Beijing
as it relates to U.S. policy on trade, politics and diplomacy. 

The U.S. has also, since 2020, imposed visa and economic
sanctions on more than two-dozen Hong Kong and Chinese officials determined to
be responsible for undermining the territory’s democracy, autonomy and loss of
rights for Hong Kong residents. 

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling for
sustained U.S. focus on condemning China’s subversion of Hong Kong and
supporting its democratic activists.

But such action faces a steep uphill battle with competing
security priorities such as Russia’s war in Ukraine, threats from Iran over its
nuclear weapons ambitions, humanitarian crises across the world and domestic
woes from inflation to political polarization on guns and abortion. 

“We recognize that the task of restoring the promise of an
autonomous Hong Kong requires the sustained effort by the United States and the
international community to push back against the erosion of political and civil
rights by Chinese and Hong Kong authorities fearful of these rights,” Sen. Jeff
Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), chairs of the bipartisan and
bicameral Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said in a statement.

Stokes, of the CNAS, said that while “a lot of the damage
has already been done,” the U.S. and international community can “continue to
shine a light on repression in Hong Kong.”

Chu agreed, saying that “we’re in a very low point right
now, I think that nobody’s disputing that.”

“But I believe, and I think that with support, and ongoing
prioritizations of Hong Kong as an issue, Hong Kong will remain that base for
resistance. But they really need help right now.”