U.S.-based Hong Kong observers contacted by VOA have disagreed about whether a tougher Biden administration response to Hong Kong’s first legislative election under Beijing-imposed conditions would help to curb the erosion of democracy in the city.
Sunday’s election almost completely eliminated pro-democracy voices from the former British colony’s Legislative Council.
Pro-Beijing and establishment lawmakers won 89 of the 90 seats in the chamber. The remaining seat went to a candidate who identified with Hong Kong’s pro-democracy opposition camp, which had been a significant minority presence in all previous assemblies.
It was the first Legco election since China changed Hong Kong’s electoral system in March, expanding the assembly from 70 to 90 seats but reducing the proportion of directly elected seats from 40 to 20. The other 70 seats under the new system were reserved for candidates picked by influential members of industry groups and by a committee of Beijing loyalists. In another change from the previous 2016 election, all Legco candidates had to be vetted for “patriotism” toward Beijing.
With most of Hong Kong’s prominent opposition politicians boycotting the new election system as undemocratic and some having fled into exile or been imprisoned under a June 2020 national security law imposed by Beijing, the ballot drew a record low turnout of 30.2%.
The Biden administration responded to the election Monday by joining with allies in two statements, one as part of the Group of Seven industrialized nations, and the other as part of a bloc of five major English-speaking nations.
Both statements expressed “grave concern over the erosion of democratic elements of [Hong Kong’s] electoral system.”
They also urged China to “act in accordance” with international obligations including the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, in which Britain agreed to return Hong Kong to China in 1997. Under that treaty, Beijing promised to let the city enjoy a high degree of autonomy as a special administrative region of China, and maintain its civil liberties for 50 years.
In another Monday announcement, the Biden administration said it would impose secondary sanctions on foreign financial institutions doing business with five Hong Kong-based Chinese officials whom it initially sanctioned in July for undermining the city’s freedoms.
Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian rejected the Western powers’ statements, accusing them of “hypocrisy and malicious intent” to disrupt life in Hong Kong and contain China’s development.
Zhao also blasted the sanctions as “preposterous and despicable,” and said Bejing will take unspecified measures to safeguard its national interests.
China analyst Nathan Picarsic of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies told VOA that he believes the U.S. diplomatic denunciations of Beijing will not be enough to deter what he called its anti-democratic Hong Kong moves.
One step that Picarsic said the U.S. should take is to work with Britain to seek international legal recourse for China’s actions by virtue of London’s status as a party to the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
“I think the U.K. should be a centerpiece in our response,” he said.
New York-based and Hong Kong-born law professor Sharon Him, who serves as executive director of advocacy group Human Rights in China, said Western powers would put Beijing in an uncomfortable position if they signaled a start to international legal action.
“The Chinese authorities would have to start researching how to argue against giving an international court jurisdiction in such a case so that Western powers won’t drag them in,” Hom said.
“If China loses a jurisdiction battle and has to defend itself in court, one thing it cannot say is that a legally binding treaty registered with the U.N. is just a ‘historical document.’ That is not an allowable defense,” she added.
Asked by VOA whether London would consider filing an international legal case against China, a British government spokesperson reiterated previous pledges to “hold China to its international obligations.” The U.S. State Department did not respond to an emailed VOA question asking whether Washington would join London in such an action.
Hong Kong activist Anna Cheung, a New York-based microbiologist and convener of the NY4HK pro-democracy group, said another step the U.S. should take is to warn U.S. companies about the risks of continuing to operate in the territory.
“There are still a lot of U.S. businesses in Hong Kong. They might think the Legco election will not affect them, but that’s not the case, because the government has all the votes it needs to create any rules that it wants,” she told VOA.
Picarsic said the Biden administration should require U.S. businesses in Hong Kong to mitigate two main types of risk.
“One is a loss of their data to China’s communist rulers by virtue of the national security law imposed on Hong Kong, and another is that U.S. capital flows through Hong Kong financial markets enable Beijing to fund military and surveillance teams committing rights abuses against ethnic minority Uyghurs in Xinjiang,” he said.
Picarsic said such requirements should be imposed even if there is an economic cost to U.S. companies.
“Democratic values should be more important than the bottom line of Goldman Sachs or other U.S. corporations trading into Hong Kong,” he said.
However, the notion that the U.S. could pressure China into changing course on Hong Kong by talking or acting tougher is misguided, according to Robert Daly, director of the Washington-based Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States.
“I love Hong Kong and consider it one of my favorite cities in the world, but it’s game over. It is fully part of China, which holds all the cards. The West holds none,” he said.
Daly said the United States should adopt what he considers to be a realistic approach with two main elements. One would be to tell the world that Hong Kong no longer has a special status.
“China’s rulers have destroyed Hong Kong’s democracy,” Daly said. “They’ve long had control over its chief executive. They’ve now taken over the legislature. And they’re moving on its judiciary and culture and changing school curricula at a great rate. So let’s treat Hong Kong in every respect as we treat the rest of China. And American businesses that thrive in Beijing and Shanghai will be able to thrive in a Hong Kong run entirely by the Communist Party,” he said.
Daly said the second message the U.S. should send is that China’s poor human rights record in its self-described autonomous regions of Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong is an indicator of the Chinese Communist Party’s global agenda.
“They want to legitimize illiberal Chinese practices everywhere. We don’t want to live in a world that is more amenable to the Communist Party, so we need to remind the world continually to be extremely skeptical of China’s claim that its rising power is peaceful,” he said.