Sitting down to breakfast with me in Washington, DC, early Wednesday morning, two leaders of Hong Kong’s democracy movement had just seen news from Hong Kong, 12 hours ahead, of developments—one confirmed, another reported—that would appear to be concessions from Beijing, but are more likely intended to divide the protest movement.
Martin Lee is a barrister, a former chairman of the Hong Kong Democratic Party and a democratically elected member of the legislative council—an important distinction as it is only partially elected. Jimmy Lai, who owns the Apple Daily newspaper and other media, is highly unusual in that he is a wealthy Hong Kong businessman who publicly supports democracy. As a result, his newspaper is the target of ad boycotts, while he personally has been a target of harassment and physical attacks. According to China’s Communist Party, Lee and Lai are “black hands,” or subversives.
Lee, at 81, looks every bit the barrister in his dark suit. Lai, 70, rarely in business attire, wore a necktie, as well as a not-completely-alarming violet cashmere blazer for their Washington meetings.
On Wednesday, Hong Kong’s government at last formally withdrew the extradition bill that kicked off months of protests. The legislation, according to Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, was allegedly necessary to enable extradition to Taiwan of a man who confessed to murdering his girlfriend there before fleeing to Hong Kong. Instead, say Lai and Lee, the murder case was a pretext for extending Beijing’s official reach into Hong Kong’s judicial system. Beijing has already snatched people extrajudicially: four of five Hong Kong men affiliated with a bookstore selling books banned by the Communist Party, and a mainland billionaire who had fallen out of favor with Beijing. Adding the veneer of legality to such kidnappings was a step too far for Hong Kong people, who prize the rule of law and expect Beijing to honor the one country, two systems arrangement they were promised.
Also, on Wednesday, the Financial Times reported that Beijing was considering replacing Lam. With the bill withdrawn and Lam gone, two of the protesters five demands would be met. However, the Hong Kong people, said Lai, would continue to insist on the other three items: an independent commission to investigate the conduct of the Hong Kong police, democratic election of the Chief Executive, and pardons for protesters.
As for the extreme tactics of some protesters, Lai said the vast majority of Hong Kong people “definitely does not want this kind of violence” and suggested that the removal of Lam, if it happens, might reflect an effort to divide the population. “The challenge for Hong Kong people . . . will be to continue their determination and persistence,” says Lai. On the matter of a replacement for Lam, Lee, whom Beijing expelled from the mainland committee drafting the Basic Law that now applies in Hong Kong, noted that any interim Chief Executive could only serve six months, after which an election would be required. But that “election,” which the Basic Law assigns to a committee of 1,200 dominated by Beijing proxies, would likely stir up more opposition. Beijing’s refusal to allow democratic election of the top official in Hong Kong was the spark for the Umbrella movement that shut down the business district for ten weeks in 2014.
Both men visited Washington earlier this year. In a remarkable show of support, Lee was received by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Lai by Vice President Mike Pence. Yet U.S. policy is not coherent. This week, Vice President Pence called out China for its interference in Hong Kong through “actions to curtail the rights and liberties of its people—rights and liberties that were guaranteed through a binding international agreement of ‘one country, two systems.’” Pence’s assessment contradicts President Trump, who recently said China has made “great progress” in Hong Kong. Two days later, Xi Jinping warned that “anyone who attempts to split any region from China will be crushed with shattered body and bones;” China’s own state media interpreted the remarks as being aimed at Hong Kong’s protesters.
The Administration is emphasizing that Hong Kong is a factor—but not a decisive one—in trade negotiations with China. If a trade deal is struck, it is hard to see how the United States would hold any lasting leverage over Beijing’s behavior in Hong Kong. The job of maintaining that leverage will fall to Congress. Historically, Congress has played an indispensable role in American support for democracy and human rights by passing legislation that the Executive Branch has opposed, including the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment and the 2012 Magnitsky Act. Both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have been deeply involved in supporting Hong Kong’s autonomy. McConnell is the author of the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992. That was at a time, before the 1997 handover, when American officials thought Beijing could be encouraged live up to its promises on Hong Kong, and generally integrate into the U.S.-led world order.
Says Lai, “America is waking up” to the challenge China poses. “America is becoming more critical about China than before, when they closed their eyes to China and hoped it would become part of the world community. . . . That was an excuse, or rationale, for some who wanted to make money.” Lee and Lai welcome the efforts of the Congress to put pressure on mainland and Hong Kong officials directly responsible for rights violations and undermining the city’s autonomy. The House has passed, and the Senate is considering, the Hong Kong Democracy and Human Rights Bill that would, among other things, provide sanctions for those responsible for undermining Hong Kong people’s rights and freedoms. “Anyone who has a hand in it should be punished,” says Lai.
Congress is also working to ensure that U.S. companies don’t supply the Hong Kong police force with tear gas and crowd control equipment. Of violent police tactics, Lai says, “The police all of a sudden turn out to be a different kind of police than we are used to. . . . However, if you consider the background, the change is not dramatic because senior police have been sent to China for training and acculturation—‘brainwashing,’ so to speak.”
Lee and Lai expect the people of Hong Kong will keep fighting for their freedom. They have confidence in the younger generation to keep the torch burning. “The police might not object” to Beijing’s indoctrination, says Lai, “but the kids will protest.”