By Satya Marar
Although pro-Beijing Hong Kong Premier Carrie Lam formally withdrew an unpopular bill early in September that would’ve allowed Hong Kong residents to be extradited to the mainland to face Chinese courts, protests for the city’s autonomy are still ongoing — even though it’s fallen out of the main news cycle. The democracy movement has more demands, and reasons to believe they won’t be met. And Congress can still protect its ally and American interests by passing bipartisan draft legislation that’ll “give lawmakers the ability to sanction Chinese and Hong Kong officials who commit human rights abuses and undermine the territory's autonomy” when it’s debated next week.
The protesters are demanding Lam’s resignation, an independent investigation of police brutality, universal suffrage, and amnesty for arrested protesters. Lam, of course, rejected most of these demands. Protesters are also worried that the extradition bill’s withdrawal, which doesn’t prevent it from being put forward in the future, is only a temporary setback for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime and its supporters in the Hong Kong government, who are likely to continue eroding the territory’s autonomy guaranteed by the 1997 bilateral agreement that transferred it to mainland China under the ‘one party, two systems’ policy.
The implications of this ongoing encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy for American economic and national interests can’t be ignored.
Hong Kong’s open markets, low-taxing economy, apolitical and independent judiciary, rule of law, respect for property rights and commitment to liberal values have made it a Mecca of economic prosperity, foreign investment and strong civil society in the Asia-Pacific.
Americans have benefited greatly from this. In 2017, American investment in the territory totaled over $81 billion, a 17.2% increase over the previous year. Despite its small size, Hong Kong is the United States’ tenth-largest export market and twenty-second largest goods trading partner. American expatriate workers also benefit from the skills and experience that they eventually bring home from Hong Kong due to its status as an international finance and technology hub.
But much of this could be under threat. Hong Kong’s apolitical and independent judiciary and respect for property rights has long offered certainty to businesses, workers and investors that they won’t become targets of a political power play by the one-party communist mainland administration. This stands in stark contrast to mainland China, where the Chief Justice of the country’s Supreme Court openly dismisses judicial independence as an “erroneous” western influence.
Australia has learned this lesson already. Chinese-Australian writer and pro-democracy activist Dr. Yang Hengjun is currently detained in China on trumped-up allegations of espionage, having been denied access to his family or lawyers. Just a decade ago, another Australian national and businessman, Stern Hu, was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for bribery and industrial espionage after a closed trial that Australian consular officials were denied access to.
And the CCP’s record of torturing and killing dissidents, harvesting their organs, and putting minorities in concentration camps makes this prospect doubly concerning. As does the CCP’s planned expansion of its citizen surveillance and behavioral engineering social credit system to companies — a move that will impact over 33 million businesses. Although Americans doing business on the mainland already face these risks, those conducting business in liberal and autonomous Hong Kong have hitherto remained safe.
American entrepreneurs and investors would also be worried by the erosion of Hong Kong’s strong intellectual property rights protections. U.S. companies doing business in mainland China are routinely forced to hand over Intellectual Property and trade secrets to the Chinese Communist Party government as a condition of entry into the Chinese market. These are often appropriated and exploited.
That’s why an international coalition of 46 pro-market advocacy groups from over 27 nations, spearheaded by the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance, have issued an open letter urging world leaders to continue pressuring the CCP regime, and urging the U.S. Congress, the world’s most influential national government, to pass the aforementioned Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019. Importantly, the act not only allows for sanctions on dubious Hong Kong or CCP officials but also requires an annual review of Hong Kong’s autonomy upon which the territory’s special status as a trading partner is contingent.
This is exactly the kind of international pressure that the CCP regime is afraid of. They’ve said as much in their press statements. And it could mark the start of sanctions to come from China’s other trading partners that will ensure that the regime is held to account, should it exceed its mandate going forward.
Passing this legislation, which already has Nancy Pelosi’s support, will be a rare example of bipartisanship in an increasingly polarized and fraught political climate. It’ll also protect U.S. interests while enabling Hong Kongers to maintain their autonomy and everything that has made their society prosperous. That’s nothing but a win.
Satya Marar is the Director of Policy at the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance and a Young Voices Contributor.