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What President Biden Should Do about Hong Kong

And what Congress can do to help.
November 21, 2020
Featured Image
HONG KONG, HONG KONG - JUNE 26: Protesters hold placards as they take part in a rally against the extradition bill ahead of 2019 G20 Osaka summit at Edinburgh Place in Central district on June 26, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Leaders from the Group of 20 nations are scheduled to gather this week for the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

On November 11, four moderate, pro-democracy members of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (known as the LegCo) were disqualified under a new law permitting their expulsion for insufficient loyalty to Beijing. The 15 remaining pro-democracy members resigned in protest, leaving the LegCo—where lawmakers once debated legislation, and could block overreach by the pro-Beijing Hong Kong government—as a mere rubber-stamp for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

This was only the latest salvo in an ongoing assault on the fundamental rights of the people of Hong Kong, a semiautonomous “special administrative region” of China ruled by the British from 1841 until 1997. Hong Kong was supposed to enjoy a high degree of autonomy and freedom until at least 2047, but the CCP began tightening control much sooner, sparking intermittent protests almost from the moment of handover. The current protests—Hong Kong’s largest to date—began in March 2019, with one demonstration swelling to nearly two million people.

As heavy-handed crackdowns failed to quell the protests, Beijing went for the nuclear option: a “National Security Law” that effectively ends Hong Kong’s autonomy and criminalizes dissent by anyone, anywhere in the world. Since its enactment in June, journalists and opposition figures have been arrested, media offices raided, academics fired, political candidates disqualified, and elections themselves postponed. A group of young Hong Kongers involved in the protests were intercepted while attempting to flee to Taiwan, and are now held incommunicado on the mainland. An arrest warrant has even been issued for an American citizen over conversations he had with the U.S. government about U.S. policy toward Hong Kong.

Repression in Hong Kong is only one dimension of a broader component of Xi Jinping’s model of authoritarian rule: bringing those within China’s borders under tighter control, and attempting to control what others say and do about China across the world. A strong stance from President-elect Biden on rights and freedoms in Hong Kong and the mainland is essential.

The U.S.-China relationship is one of the most consequential and complex that President-elect Biden will need to navigate. There are valid criticisms of the Trump administration’s China policy— the president’s rhetoric was too inflammatory and his policies encouraged too much tit-for-tat. But the administration was right to focus on human rights abuses in China (such as it did), to take the threat of the CCP’s influence in the United States and elsewhere around the world seriously.

There remains strong bipartisan support in Congress for standing with the Hong Kong protesters and condemning human rights violations on China’s mainland, as well as for protecting American institutions from malign CCP influence. While President-elect Biden took a firm stance on China on the campaign trail that many predict will carry over into his presidency, he is expected to tap many senior officials from the Obama administration who may downplay accountability for human rights abuses in an effort to prioritize bilateral cooperation. Moreover, comments in China’s state media have signaled an expectation that pressure will ease on certain issues, and state media has remarked about the coming “breathing room” under a Biden administration. It is critical, therefore, that President-elect Biden move quickly to affirm that the United States regards human rights in China and democracy in Hong Kong as important economic and security interests, and will defend the rights of exiled Hong Kongers, members of the Chinese diaspora, and Americans in the United States from harassment, censorship, and repression by the CCP.

To show both the Chinese government and the American people that the incoming US administration takes these issues seriously, President-elect Biden should take the following actions:

  1. Vocally condemn rights violations in Hong Kong and on the mainland, and meet with democracy advocates and victims of persecution. An immediate statement condemning the disqualification of Hong Kong legislators would demonstrate that the future of Hong Kong has captured the attention of the incoming administration. Publicized meetings with pro-democracy advocates and victims of persecution in China—even before President-elect Biden’s term has officially begun—would signal the administration’s resolve on these issues. Continued meetings with activists and victims would provide the administration with a steady stream of information related to human rights concerns in China that could inform U.S. policy.
  2. Fill key positions with individuals who have historically supported human rights in China and who understand Beijing’s global influence operations. Deliberately selecting individuals known for supporting human rights in China would also signal that President-elect Biden takes Beijing’s abuses and undemocratic influence campaigns seriously. The president-elect should ensure that key officials possess an understanding of the overseas operations of China’s United Work Front Department, which coordinates the Chinese government’s attempts to influence foreign media, educational institutions, businesses, and state and local governments. This standard should extend not just to the State and Defense Departments and the intelligence community, but to other departments and agencies that deal with Chinese officials, including the Commerce, Treasury, and Energy Departments, the U.S. trade representative, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Other bodies likely to encounter United Front efforts include the Department of Education and Federal Communications Commission, and their staffs should also have expertise on Chinese influence operations.
  3. Use and update existing law to welcome Hong Kongers and Hong Kong based–businesses seeking to relocate to the United States. Beijing’s decision to unleash a crackdown means that Hong Kong will lose some of its best and brightest people and its most innovative businesses. The United States should welcome them with open arms. President-elect Biden and the incoming Congress should work together to update laws as necessary to ease their relocation to the United States, and Congress should pass the Hong Kong People’s Freedom and Choice Act to provide temporary protected status for Hong Kongers.
  4. Ensure that every meeting between American and Chinese officials includes discussion of human rights concerns. Human rights and governance issues are inextricably linked to every nation’s economic prosperity and national security. The imprisonment in China of more than one million Uighurs and other ethnic and religious minorities—including Tibetans, Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners, and of human rights defenders—should feature prominently in these discussions, as should the Chinese government’s human rights violations in Hong Kong.

Some argue that advocating for rights in Hong Kong and on the mainland is a lost cause. But that’s not for us to decide. That’s up to the people of Hong Kong and China. Any failure by the United States to confront rights abuses in China and Hong Kong would represent a lapse of courage and a miscalculation of strategic interests. The CCP is only growing more aggressive in its attempt to impose its repression around the world, even in democracies like ours. If the United States is to remain a world leader, President-elect Biden must make it clear that Beijing’s violation of rights at home and abroad is not only fair game for discussion, but will be a critical component of U.S. foreign policy and of bilateral relations between the U.S. and China.

Annie Boyajian

Annie Boyajian is director of advocacy at Freedom House and a former congressional staffer. Twitter: @AnnieBoyajian