An estimated 1 million Hong Kong residents took to the streets over the weekend in ongoing demonstrations to protest a new bill that would allow extradition to mainland China of those suspected of criminal offenses. Hong Kong citizens fear that, if the bill is adopted, China’s notoriously repressive and corrupt criminal laws will be used against Beijing’s political opponents in Hong Kong.
Twenty-two years ago, on July 1, 1997, the British government handed over control of Hong Kong to China. Beijing inherited a thriving market economy shaped by British democratic norms and the rule of law. At the time, Western governments hoped that money — in this case, Hong Kong’s booming economy — would induce China to honor its pledge of “one country, two systems,” and ensure that the city remained the financial capital of Asia with its democratic traditions intact.
The proposed bill at the center of the protests now makes it abundantly clear that this was a delusion: The main imperative for Beijing is keeping its power intact, and taking away the remaining freedoms in Hong Kong that challenge the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party.
Hong Kong is a model of openness that threatens the party because it demonstrates that the citizens of Chinese states can be both free and rich. These protests are exactly the sort of free expression that the U.S. should be championing so that Hong Kong can retain this character rather than cling to the quixotic notion that Beijing will reform without pressure because of the inducements of capitalism. To its credit, the Trump administration seems to be acknowledging that a tougher line against China is finally warranted.