One of the more dangerous symptoms of the Covid-19 pandemic is the ever-increasing tensions between Washington and Beijing. The relationship could be the worst it’s been since President Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972. This new Cold War is being played out in many theaters, including Hong Kong, which has served as a stage for recent US meddling. A recent announcement from China’s legislature of a new national security law made for the city has drawn sharp condemnation from Washington.
Although the Sino-British Joint Declaration tasked the UK with ensuring Hong Kong’s autonomy, the US has eagerly stepped into that role. The declaration, signed in 1984, set up the handover of Hong Kong from British control to Chinese control in 1997. Under the declaration, China agreed to what is known as the "one country, two systems" policy. The policy means Hong Kong can retain its own economic and administrative systems until at least 2047.
Beijing’s National People’s Congress (NPC) put forward a new resolution on Friday that aims to prevent, stop, and punish secessionist activity, subversion of state power, terrorism, and foreign interference. US Senators are already scrambling to pass legislation that would sanction Chinese officials over the resolution.
Secretary of State of Mike Pompeo was quick to denounce the national security law. "The United States condemns the People’s Republic of China (PRC) National People’s Congress proposal to unilaterally and arbitrarily impose national security legislation on Hong Kong. The decision to bypass Hong Kong’s well-established legislative processes and ignore the will of the people of Hong Kong would be a death knell for the high degree of autonomy Beijing promised for Hong Kong under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a UN-filed agreement," Pompeo said in a statement.
Missing from Pompeo’s statement is the fact that Hong Kong was required to pass a similar security law after the 1997 handover. In 2003, the Hong Kong government shelved its version of the law after hundreds of thousands flooded the streets in protest. While the US argues China is violating the conditions of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Beijing can argue Hong Kong has not lived up to its end of the agreement.
The new security law is Beijing’s response to the pro-democracy protests that rocked Hong Kong in 2019 and continue today. The protests started in March 2019 and were sparked by a proposed bill that would have allowed the extradition of suspected criminals to mainland China. The bill was suspended in June 2019 and scrapped altogether in October 2019. The protests were slowed down by the Covid-19 pandemic, but a new wave started in response to the security law.
Details of the new law are not yet clear. One area of concern for Hong Kongers is the question of who will enforce the new laws. When defending the possibility of Beijing authorities being used for enforcement on the city, Ip Kwok-Him, a member of the Executive Council of Hong Kong and delegate to the NPC, said, "When foreign interference is involved, it is not something Hong Kong departments can tackle on their own."
The "foreign interference" Ip refers to took many forms during the Hong Kong protests. Perhaps the most blatant interference was the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which was signed into law by President Trump in November 2019. Demonstrators marched to the US consulate in Hong Kong in September 2019, waving American flags and carrying signs that read, "Support the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act." Congress was happy to oblige, the act passed unanimously through the Senate, and had only one lone nay vote in the House from Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY).
The act requires the State Department to prepare an annual report on the autonomy of Hong Kong from mainland China. If the US is not pleased with the level of autonomy, Hong Kong can lose its special trade status. Meaning the city would be subject to same US tariffs, sanctions, and export restrictions China is subject to, which would be a significant blow to the economy. The act can also lead to sanctions on individuals "responsible for gross human rights violations in Hong Kong." The State Department report is expected to be released by the end of May.
Joshua Wong, a young figurehead of the opposition, traveled to Washington and met with US politicians to discuss the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act as early as 2016. Wong went to the US again with other activists in September 2019 and testified before Congress, pleading for intervention. Jimmy Lai, another opposition leader, and media mogul, visited Washington in July 2019 and met with Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence, and former National Security Advisor John Bolton. Lai was arrested by Hong Kong authorities in February for allegedly taking part in an illegal assembly.
In the summer of 2019, massive protests also rocked the US territory of Puerto Rico. For a little perspective, imagine if Puerto Rican protest leaders traveled to Beijing to meet with Chinese officials.
In August 2019, while the protests were gaining steam, a photo of a US diplomat meeting with Wong and other protest leaders leaked to the press. The photo raised suspicions that the US may be fueling the protests in more covert ways.
The US-government funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) has a presence in Hong Kong and is suspected of playing a role in the demonstrations. The NED paints itself as a private, non-profit foundation dedicated to spreading democracy around the world, but the reality is the NED has long been an instrument for US regime change. In 1991, Allen Weinstein, a co-founder of the NED, admitted, "A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA." According to the NED’s website, the organization has spent over two million dollars on programs in Hong Kong since 2016.
The Hong Kong protests got a visit from another group of NED-funded and US-backed opposition. Members of the Ukrainian neo-Nazi militia, the Azov Battalion who were involved in the 2014 US-backed coup, and fought against separatists in eastern Ukraine, paid a visit to Hong Kong to support the protesters in December 2019.
The US has repeatedly condemned the Hong Kong police for their brutality in handling the demonstrations. Alongside the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, President Trump signed a bill that prohibits the sale of tear gas, rubber bullets, and handcuffs to the Hong Kong Police Force. While the Hong Kong police often use tear gas to break up protests, no demonstrators have been killed by police, and very few have been shot with live ammunition.
The US has plenty of allies whose brutal crackdowns on protesters make the Hong Kong police look rather tame. For example, in October 2019, millions of protesters took to the streets in Chile. The protests continue today, and dozens have been killed in the violence, including some killed by Chilean security forces. Chile, being one of Washington’s main allies in South America, has not drawn condemnation from the White House or legislation from Congress banning the sale of munitions to Chilean police. Instead, the State Department blamed the unrest on Russia, and the White House released a statement denouncing "foreign efforts to undermine Chilean institutions, democracy, or society."
During the Great March of Return protests in Gaza that started in March 2018, Israeli forces shot thousands of protesters with live ammunition and killed hundreds. Among those killed were children, paramedics, journalists, and disabled people. While Israel’s brutality drew some condemnation from Congress, no measures to stop US support for these massacres were put forward. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee just approved a new $38 billion military aid package for Israel, which will now go to the Senate floor.
The violence from police in Hong Kong does not measure up to the violence seen in Chile and Gaza, and the list of US-backed governments cracking down on dissent goes on. From Saudi Arabia beheading and crucifying Shi’ite protesters, to the hundreds killed demonstrating in Iraq (an example of the type of democracy the US spreads). Cries of human rights and democracy ring hollow while supporting such cruelty.
Some of the most violent acts in Hong Kong were carried out not by police but by protesters. November 2019 saw the most horrific violence when a man was set on fire after confronting a group of protesters. Around the same time, a 70-year-old man was struck in the head with a brick that was thrown by a demonstrator, killing him. It seems the pattern of violence from the protesters will continue. A Hong Kong lawyer was badly beaten on Sunday by demonstrators who were setting up roadblocks.
When discussing Hong Kong, it is important to remember how the city came under British control. Hong Kong officially became a British colony in 1842, when the British and Chinese signed the Treaty of Nanking at the end of the First Opium War, later known as the first of the "unequal treaties." Essentially, the British Navy stole the island from the Qing Dynasty, so it would be easier to flood China with opium, a trade many prominent American families were involved in. Something to keep in mind while China hawks in the US blame Beijing for the opioid epidemic afflicting Americans today (while ignoring America’s archaic drug laws and the culpability of pharmaceutical companies’.)
The First Opium War started what the Chinese refer to as "The Century of Humiliation." From 1839 until 1949, the Chinese found themselves at the subjugation of Western powers and Imperial Japan. These wounds are still fresh, and Washington’s recent moves in Hong Kong rub salt in them. The people of Hong Kong have every right to demonstrate and demand democracy (something the British never gave them), but intervention from the US only serves to delegitimize their movement. The interference also gives Beijing a foreign bogeyman to use as an excuse to tighten its grip on the island.
Dave DeCamp is assistant editor at Antiwar.com and a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn NY, focusing on US foreign policy and wars. He is on Twitter at @decampdave.