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Biden slaps new sanctions on China, but it won't free Hong Kong

The U.S. must find ways of advocating for basic democratic principles without using them as a cudgel to bash Beijing.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

The Biden administration is expected to impose new sanctions today on seven Chinese officials responsible for the crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. Following a round in March that also targeted Hong Kong officials, this move brings the total number sanctioned to 41.

I saw Beijing’s crackdown with my own eyes, having spent a year in Hong Kong just as a new national security law for the city took effect last June. For those who see no future in a world of “great power competition” between the U.S. and China, it is important not to shy away from what is a very real tragedy unfolding in slow-motion in Hong Kong.

One year on, the national security law has seenover 100 activists and politicians arrested or forcibly exiled, including many longstanding leaders of the movement. The opposition has been effectively cleared and barred from the legislature. Pro-democracy films and books are slowly being censored, and purple flags can be raised to deem any protest an effort to subvert state power.

I left just as events began to take an even darker turn. The city’s vibrant media landscape is clearly on life support, as its most influential opposition newspaper was  forcibly shuttered in June. A knife attack on a police officer, followed by the arrest of teenagers allegedly tied to a bombing plot, have now raised the specter of “domestic terrorism,” and with it a fresh wave of crackdowns.

This latest round of sanctions, the second of Biden’s presidency, is unlikely to change Beijing’s calculus. Indeed, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam — who, barred from holding a bank account due to sanctions imposed in November, receives her government salary entirely in cash — said at the time that “to be so unjustifiably sanctioned by the U.S. government, it’s an honor.”

Lam’s remarks demonstrate that sanctions largely serve to harden Beijing’s resolve with little benefit for Hong Kong, turning the city into another test of wills in the “great power competition” between the U.S. and China. Despite sanctions already put into place, plus a consistent wave of Western reprisals, Beijing has only escalated its repressive measures over the last year and developed tools to retaliate.

Limits are also revealed in the shrinking number of options Biden has left. There are already sanctions on 14 vice chairs of China’s top legislative body, the National People’s Congress. Washington could next target Li Zhanshu, the body’s chairman and China’s third-ranked leader, but did not do so in March over apparent concerns that this would undermine important diplomatic interactions and be too provocative.

The Treasury Department could also use the full power granted it by the 2020 Hong Kong Autonomy Act to go after Chinese banks that do business with some officials. But Kurt Tong, former U.S. Consul General in Hong Kong, recently wrote that “any actions against a major Chinese bank would quickly escalate into a full-scale attack on China’s financial system,” leading to a series of events that “would significantly damage the U.S. economy.”

Despite the limitations of a sanctions-based approach, some proposals in Congress would be even worse. One provision in both of the China-related packages working their way through the House and Senate sets aside $10 million for the State Department “to promote democracy in Hong Kong.”

Put aside the obvious fact that said resources would never be able to match the firepower deployed in the city by Beijing — Hong Kong’s budget this year alone allocated $1 billion for “safeguarding national security.” More importantly, the flippant use of such language demonstrates that policymakers do not understand the dynamics of the game they are playing, and hands Beijing a propaganda coup on a silver platter.

Stretching back to the Tiananmen Square massacre if not before, Beijing has long sought to delegitimize popular challenges to its rule by associating them with the “black hands” of Western intelligence agencies.

This has been particularly true in Hong Kong, where the shadows of “foreign forces” are constantly invoked to justify the government’s crackdown. Upon taking up the job in May, Beijing’s new top diplomat in Hong Kong labeled the protest movement a “color revolution,” and said that combating “foreign forces” would be his top priority.

The aforementioned Congressional proposal all but does this official’s job for him, offering ostensible evidence straight from the horse’s mouth that the West had its hands in the movement from the start. Even worse, any individuals in the city found to be the recipients or beneficiaries of said funding run the risk of being sent to prison for life. 

The Wilson Center’s Robert Daly made a similar point. After noting that he is “rightly horrified by what China has done in Hong Kong over the past year-and-a-half,” he characterized this provision as “fairly direct interference in China’s internal affairs. If Hong Kong is like any other Chinese city, why stop at Hong Kong? Why not Shanghai?”

“It strengthens [Beijing’s] claim that the Hong Kong demonstrations did not reflect the true feelings of Hong Kong people, but were orchestrated by overseas forces. We’re playing into that,” he finished.

In responding to China’s rise, one of the greatest challenges facing the United States is recognizing the limits of its power. Blindly ignoring this reflects not courage or bravery but the lack of it, and will more often than not only tend to make the situation worse.

In the case of Hong Kong, little can be done; the city’s future will be determined by long-term political struggles in Beijing.

Some Hong Kong activists believe that a coordinated and sustained Western effort to isolate and contain China is the best way to change its long-term calculus and inculcate in it a sense of restraint.

To the extent that Chinese foreign policy is specifically designed to limit its vulnerability to such a coalition, just the opposite is likely to be true. The best and only way of doing justice by Hong Kong over the long-run is to chart a more sustainable course, one that identifies and mitigates the structural factors driving tensions between China and the West; absent this, relations will continue their downward spiral and hardliners will hold sway in Beijing.

This should not be taken to mean that nothing should be done in the here-and-now. For both political and strategic reasons, the long-term stability of any modus vivendi with Beijing will require Washington to find ways of advocating for and upholding basic democratic principles without using them as a cudgel to bash Beijing.

In the case of Hong Kong, the U.S. should follow in the footsteps of Britain, Canada, Australia and others in relaxing immigration restrictions, giving Hongkongers the option of declining to be pawns in this great game and jumping off the chessboard entirely. The Biden administration is reportedly considering an executive order along these lines, but this is still not a certainty.

The Ensuring American Global Leadership and Engagement (EAGLE) Act (H.R.3524), one of the China-related bills making its way through the House, does contain such a provision. It would grant Temporary Protected Status to those Hongkongers already in the United States, expand refugee protections for a limited group particularly liable to political persecution, and create a special visa category for university graduates.

It would be better to do away with the unnecessary red tape and the class-based limitations which signal that America’s goal is to encourage brain drain — but these measures are better than nothing.

It is certainly better than the Senate’s United States Innovation and Competition Act (S.1260), which makes no mention of immigration but does contain the provision “to promote democracy in Hong Kong.” Hardliners in Beijing would only benefit from such an approach.

Protestors hold self-printed versions of Apple Daily newspapers during the demonstration. Following Apple DailyÌs closing down in Hong Kong, Hong Kongers in London gather at Piccadilly Circus in London holding up mockups of the Apple Daily Newspapers. They stand in solidarity in remembrance of the newspaper which often represented the opposition voices against the establishment in Hong Kong. (Photo by Belinda Jiao / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)No Use Germany.
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