It was the 10-tonne truck that China had to have seen coming. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, signed into law by U.S. President Donald Trump last week, represents a powerful demonstration of political will by U.S. lawmakers and the White House to hold Beijing to account for the erosion of the special administration region’s status under the “one country, two systems” framework.
With unanimous passage in the House of Representatives and the Senate by voice votes, the bill was impervious to a presidential veto, which lawmakers had the numbers to override. Even if the White House was concerned that signing the act would hinder the possibility of a “phase one” trade deal with China, it calculated that signing was better.
It represented an important turning point in how the United States regards the situation, despite Trump saying that he trusted Chinese President Xi Jinping to “do the right thing” and that a “happy and enlightened ending to the Hong Kong problem” would be possible if Xi met the largely leaderless protest movement.
Opening the door to sanctions against mainland and Hong Kong officials complicit in human rights abuses, it drew a predictable response from the Chinese government, which said the U.S. law represented “meddling” and retaliated by barring U.S. warships from conducting port calls in Hong Kong and banning several U.S. non-governmental organisations.
First, we should be realistic about the scope of Chinese sanctions applying to U.S. port calls: the impact is largely symbolic.
The U.S. Navy has already dealt with arbitrary, last-minute cancellations of port calls. It happened in August this year, when the Chinese government pulled permission for USS Green Bay and USS Lake Erie in case the appearance of American warships provoked pro-democracy protesters. Previously, sale of military equipment to Taiwan led to withdrawal of permission for USS Wasp to visit, and U.S. criticism of Chinese behavior in the South China Sea brought the cancellation of a visit by USS John C. Stennis.
Cancelling port calls suggests that the US-China relationship has fallen below a threshold at which Beijing is content to write off what used to be a useful barometer of how tense matters were.
Unfortunately, the withdrawal of port calls further underscores Beijing’s inability to let Hong Kong be Hong Kong. In past years, when U.S. Navy visits did occur, they provided a clear manifestation of the US’ special relationship with the region.
If Beijing sees the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act as “meddling”, it has vindicated the concerns that drove that legislation by further chipping away at Hong Kong’s status.
In the banning of non-governmental organizations – including the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Human Rights Watch and Freedom House – what we see is evidence of Beijing’s deep insecurity.
These organizations have collated evidence of abuses committed by Hong Kong authorities and supported work tracking the erosion of the region’s special status. In doing so, in the eyes of the Chinese government, they have supported “anti-China people”. This is ludicrous and suggests that Beijing’s propaganda saying the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong was borne of foreign forces runs so deep that it cannot help but act in this way.
For now, there’s little clarity on how China’s sanctions against those organizations will be enforced. China has made clear that it is upset about the U.S. standing up for democracy in Hong Kong, but that much was apparent even before the events sparked by the signing of the act.
Taken together, China’s retaliatory actions amount to little more than a symbolic outcry. They are unlikely to deter U.S. support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, today or in the future.
A version of this piece first appeared in the South China Morning Post. It is republished here with kind permission.