Hong Kong is recognized as a semi-autonomous entity and its legal system provides expansive civil liberties in comparison to the code in mainland China. However, when China and Hong Kong’s governments proposed an extradition bill that would allow citizens from Hong Kong to be tried for crimes committed in the mainland territory, citizens feared they would lose these rights. The city’s inhabitants believe the bill condones the Chinese government to enforce their will on their legal system and groups from all sections of the population have voiced their displeasure by signing petitions and organizing protest marches. While the marches were originally peaceful, excessive violence on the part of the police force has sparked great conflict and radicalized protests. Following the first use of tear gas against protesters on June 12th, 2019, two million citizens congregated for the largest march in Hong Kong’s history on June 16th (Wu, Jin, and K. K. Rebecca. “116 Days of Hong Kong Protests. How Did We Get Here?”). What started as an effort to strike down the extradition bill has turned into a large-scale movement for democratic reforms and police accountability. The city is now isolated in a human rights struggle that has resulted in the arrests of over 4,000 people in a six-month span.
As the Chinese government continues to elevate the severity of their transgressions against human rights, the citizens of Hong Kong have anxiously waited for a response from the United States. That response came on Tuesday, November 19th, when the Senate unanimously passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. Two days later, the bill passed the House and is now waiting on the approval of the President before enactment. According to a New York Times article, the legislation requires the United States to impose sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses in their territory. Also, it mandates the State Department to review the autonomous status of Hong Kong in trade considerations with China (Yaffe-bellany, David, and Alan Rappeport. “U.S. Bill Supporting Hong Kong Rights Heads to Trump’s Desk.”). Government officials in Hong Kong and China have expressed negative sentiments towards the bill, but American legislators have retorted by criticizing their oppressive rule. With the pro-democracy movement intensifying and sanctions threatening to strain the Chinese economy, China is faced with a tough dilemma: either give in to their demands and engage in reforms, or violently put down the protesters to prevent changes. In other words, China’s leaders must choose between protecting their authoritarian institutions and preserving their legitimacy.
China has been an authoritarian communist state since 1949 and those at the top of the political structure in China may be reluctant to sacrifice the institutions that have helped them. Designating China with a score of 11/100 for their freedom rating, Freedom House explains that the Chinese Communist Party has become increasingly repressive in order to consolidate power:
The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is tightening its control over the state bureaucracy, the media, online speech, religious groups, universities, businesses, and civil society associations, and it has undermined its own already modest rule-of-law reforms. The CCP leader and state president, Xi Jinping, has consolidated personal power to a degree not seen in China for decades (“China.” China Country Report).
Through practicing many forms of manipulation, members of the ruling party are benefitting immensely and they enjoy total sovereignty over the state. Ceding ground to the democratic protesters in Hong Kong could damage this control by leading the country towards an era of destabilizing regime-change. Tearing down the communist makeup of the country to quiet the demonstrations will involve the removal of institutions that have been in place for half-a-century. A reformation process of this scale would almost certainly damage China’s position as an international superpower and rising economic hegemon.
On the other hand, by keeping up their inappropriate level of police brutality to silence the protesters, the regime may risk losing legitimacy both, domestically and internationally. Hong Kong’s population is more polarized than it has ever been and given the government’s actions up to this point, protesters are not likely to back down. Supporters of the movement have recently shown their resolve through occupying university campuses to engage in violent standoffs with police forces. However, the police have answered these aggressive tactics with more forceful apprehension. The government’s human rights violations could spark protests in other parts of the population, as individuals may begin to question whether the state’s actions have been just. If similar mobilization occurs elsewhere, China faces the possibility of a widespread, democratic revolution. In addition, the U.S. siding with the citizens of Hong Kong is evidence that the movement is gaining international support. Should the Chinese government choose to continue their assault on civilians, other trading partners could follow the Americans’ lead in limiting economic relationships with China. The combination of these outcomes would put the state in danger by threatening economic ruin and even violent internal conflict.
With the United States’ on their way to enacting the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, the situation in Hong Kong becomes increasingly intense. China seems intent on ignoring the opinion of the United States, as well as protesters in Hong Kong; however, they cannot outrun the difficult questions that have risen out of these events. Will the Communist Party in China choose legitimacy or its authoritarian power-structure? Additionally, is the stability of the regime in danger regardless of what their answer to the prior question is?
Byrd, Haley. “Hong Kong Bills Go to Trump After Passing House and Senate.” CNN, Cable News Network, 21 Nov. 2019, www.cnn.com/2019/11/21/politics/hong-kong-bill-congress-trump/index.html.
“China.” China Country Report, 18 July 2019, freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2019/china.
Wu, Jin, and K. K. Rebecca. “116 Days of Hong Kong Protests. How Did We Get Here?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 1 Oct. 2019, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/world/asia/hong-kong-protests-arc.html.
Yaffe-bellany, David, and Alan Rappeport. “U.S. Bill Supporting Hong Kong Rights Heads to Trump’s Desk.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Nov. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/11/20/business/hong-kong-human-rights-act.html.