On my first visit to Hong Kong in the 1990s, I was immediately struck by the city's vitality, pluralism and openness. From my backpacker hotel, I experienced a dynamic metropolis fueled by hard work and the free flow of ideas. Hong Kong felt upbeat and alive, a confident city ready to face anything.
As an American, I felt at home in Hong Kong. Our common histories of openness and diversity have been the basis for a strong relationship for over 175 years. Hong Kong is home to 85,000 Americans, and almost 1,300 U.S. companies. Shared values and deep people-to-people ties created a firm foundation for friendship. Hong Kong became one of the world's most developed places precisely because it embraced free exchange, from goods and money to ideas and innovation.
Hong Kong’s success was fundamentally based on the "One Country, Two Systems" framework, including the high degree of autonomy promised to Hong Kong in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the freedoms enshrined in the city's Basic Law.
For many years, our annual Hong Kong Policy Act reports stated that Beijing generally lived up to its commitment to allow Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy. Sadly, our latest report (https://www.state.gov/2021-hong-kong-policy-act-report/) states the obvious: Beijing “continues to dismantle Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, inconsistent with the PRC’s obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration and Hong Kong’s Basic Law.”
Today, it is harder to recognize the Hong Kong that thrived for so long. The 2019 protest movement revealed widespread dissatisfaction with the government's ability to address the people’s concerns. Unfortunately, rather than defusing tensions through existing institutions, the authorities took a different approach. Public concerns were downplayed or dismissed, and many with dissenting views have been arrested or silenced (https://hk.usconsulate.gov/bearing-witness/). "Foreign forces" were invoked in a revival of old propaganda tropes as authorities frantically tried to shift blame to outside scapegoats. Invoking conspiracy theories allows them to avoid accountability and ignores the views of the millions of Hong Kong residents who protested peacefully, and later voted overwhelmingly to support opposition candidates during the 2019 District Council Elections. Tagging peaceful protesters as "rioters" due to the acts of a violent fringe is yet another way for authorities to evade the hard work of dialogue and compromise.
The government’s inability or unwillingness to resolve public concerns was the root cause of the 2019 protests. Now, the government is telling us the solution is curtailing pluralism and suppressing dissent. Hong Kong, once a bastion of disparate voices, lively debate, and rule of law, is now a city where people have their travel documents seized, are arrested and languish in detention for months before trial for taking part in peaceful demonstrations or trying to participate in primary elections, and face years of imprisonment under a national security law developed, imposed, and enforced by organs accountable only to Beijing. In March, the National People's Congress squelched democratic representation, choosing instead to subject all candidates for office to a selection committee litmus test for ill-defined "patriotism," while packing both LegCo and the Chief Executive Election Committee with Beijing’s hand-picked representatives to ensure that only Beijing-approved views can be heard. These retrogressive measures do not "pave the way for democratic reform," but rather quash meaningful pluralism and lead to governance that is even less responsive to the concerns of Hong Kongers.
Democracy isn’t always easy, and it isn’t always perfect. But no other system comparably supports rights and freedoms while delivering prosperity and stability, and the alternatives just don’t add up. "Patriotism" cannot be legislated from above. Responsibility cannot be evaded by invoking outside bogeymen, as world history has shown us. Fear of the public is never a basis for successful governance.
The best solution to Hong Kong's challenges is the most obvious: trust the city to work according to the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. That means ensuring the LegCo and the Chief Executive election committee represent the views of all Hong Kongers, not just those of a small group hand-picked by Beijing. It means letting Hong Kong's own institutions develop their own legislation that fosters security, prosperity and stability, and can replace the current NSL, which is being used for repression. And it means continuing to make progress toward universal suffrage, upholding freedom of speech and association, ending pressure on the judiciary, and holding free and fair LegCo elections.
These measures should not be controversial, because they all reflect institutions, practices, and proposals on the table since 1997. Imagine if the authorities had the confidence and vision to earn public esteem, rather than try to mandate it. Imagine Hong Kong as a beacon of pluralism and prosperity, both part of China and uniquely open to the world. Imagine a stability based in the hearts of free people, and not coerced by reactionary decrees from above.
In other words, imagine how bright the future would look if the city were simply allowed to be itself. That's the Hong Kong I've seen before, and the Hong Kong I hope to see again. Let Hong Kong be Hong Kong.
Consul General, U.S. Consulate General Hong Kong and Macau