Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Failure of US Policy on Hong Kong

By Jason LPublished September 2, 2021



The Failure of US Policy on Hong Kong


As Hong Kong’s “summer of discontent” began stretching well into the fall of 2019, Hong Kongers began growing increasingly accustomed to a unique phenomenon: the presence of demonstrators waving the flags of foreign countries at weekly demonstrations. What started as an elderly woman waving a British flag during demonstrations to defy the Hong Kong government has now developed into a broader effort to divert the globe’s attention to Hong Kong’s ongoing protest movement. Currently, processions of flags are commonplace at marches, while pro-democracy activists have also started taking the fight to the “international frontline” by meeting with foreign lawmakers and making high-profile appearances on global television channels and newspapers. 


While some governments and intergovernmental organisations have sporadically issued bland and often vague statements on Hong Kongin an attempt to avoid provoking the ire of China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats too oftenthe United States (US) has, in stark contrast, continued to loudly voice its support of the region’s pro-democracy movement. In 2019, the United States Congress enacted the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act (HKHRDA), which was a list of sanctions and trade restrictions on Hong Kong that received bipartisan support. The act is the most substantial piece of non-immigration-related policy towards Hong Kong by any global political actor.


However, such a strong rebuke of the Hong Kong government’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies ultimately hide the motivations of the Republican-led US government’s actions. It is clear that this behaviour is more selfish rather than altruistic. That’s not to say that the US has directly interfered in the protest movement by somehow training Hong Kong’s demonstratorsthere is no evidence of this motive beyond conspiracy theories peddled by the Hong Kong government. Rather, the Republican Party is directly taking advantage of political turmoil in Hong Kong to further its domestic and foreign policy objectives. The unintended consequence of this behaviour, however, is that it ultimately undermines the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and ultimately hurts the broader Hong Kong population.


The United States stands out from its global partners in its ferocious advocacy for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. The HKHRDA attracted 56 co-sponsors, both across party lines and also within internal party divisions. However, the most ardent advocates for Hong Kong in the United States government tend to come from the Republican Party. Specifically, Senators Josh Hawley (R-MO), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Rick Scott (R-FL), and Ted Cruz (R-TX) have all visited Hong Kong since the 2019 protests began, each posing for photo-ops at demonstrations and meeting with local pro-democracy activists. These visits have usually been met with furious condemnations from the Hong Kong and Chinese Central People’s governments. In a plethora of statements, these Senators have also publicly slammed the Hong Kong government and voiced concerns over police brutality. Sen. Hawley went as far as to give a speech on the Senate floor in support of the pro-democracy movement, before donning a t-shirt that read #FreeHongKong when voting in favour of the HKHRDA. 


Therefore, based on these Senators’ support of the protest movement in Hong Kong, one would naturally assume that, when large-scale protests surrounding racism, governmental oppresion, and police brutality erupted across the United States, these Republican Senators would sympathise with and support the Black Lives Matter movement. Instead, their hypocrisy was laid bare: Sen. Hawley introduced legislation that would increase federal funding for the police, as well as sent a letter blasting the NBA for its support of Black Lives Matter and urging the league to support the police. Meanwhile, Sen. Cruz has emerged as a vociferous opponent of peaceful Black Lives Matter protests and has repeatedly and publicly disparaged the movement


These Senators make it abundantly clear that their interest in Hong Kong does not come as a result of their genuine care and concern for human rights and freedom in Hong Kong. Instead, Hong Kong seemingly represents yet another pawn for the Republican Party to further its foreign policy objectives towards China. Watch any speech or statement given by these Senators on Hong Kong, and one will notice that much of the rhetoric focuses exclusively on opposing the Chinese Communist Party, rather than on any of the other local actors that have contributed to the violation of basic human rights in Hong Kong. Republicans have touted their “tough on China” foreign and trade policies as a key political differentiator against “weak on China” Democrats, in an attempt to leverage historical lows in perceptions of China within the US for their own political gain.


Worse yet, US foreign policy on Hong Kong has overwhelmingly negative implications for pro-democracy activists and for the average Hong Kong citizen. The Hong Kong and mainland Chinese governments have used this legislation as evidence to advance their groundless claims of foreign interference in Hong Kong, in an effort to discredit the legitimacy of the pro-democracy movement. The HKHRDA has also had virtually no impact on the state of human rights in Hong Kong, with the vast majority of sanctioned Hong Kong and Chinese government officials simply shrugging financial restrictions off. Worse yet, the revocation of Hong Kong’s special trade status with the United States could have devastating consequences for local industries, whose goods would face the same trade restrictions as mainland Chinese goods. A loss of economic competition would further encourage foreign corporations to move their other financial hubs around Asia, which would, in turn, clear the way for mainland Chinese businesses to take their place. Such developments would surely irk local activists calling for the uncoupling of Hong Kong and mainland China’s economies. 


The outlook is clear: the United States’ approach to foreign policy in Hong Kong serves only to further its own foreign policy objectives against China. If the US has a sincere desire to support the ongoing pro-democracy and human rights movement, its legislators need to treat the human rights of Hong Kong as their main focus, and not as an afterthought of a broader attempt to maintain global hegemony.