Images of a rally outside the U.S. embassy in Hong Kong peppered local news outlets and social media in September. Protesters clad in black waved U.S. flags, asking the supposed nation of freedom to lend an ear to those overseas fighting for their human rights and pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. Unfortunately, U.S. politicians have since capitalized on this as an opportunity to advance their own agendas.
Hong Kong is currently embroiled in the 22nd week of protests, which began over an extradition bill, which would allow China to legally bring anyone arrested in Hong Kong back to the mainland to be tried and sentenced. Since then, five demands from protestors have emerged, one of which is universal suffrage in elections for the Chief Executive and Legislative Council positions, comparable to presidential and congressional positions. When control of Hong Kong was transferred from the United Kingdom to China, negotiators formulated a constitutional document known as the Basic Law. It stipulated eventual democratic elections and for China to provide Hong Kong with limited political autonomy until 2047. The extradition bill is seen as a violation of that promise. Despite pleas for freedom, self-serving politicians in the U.S. see the fight for democracy in Hong Kong as nothing more than a tool to gain a personal advantage back home.
Vice President Mike Pence recently tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protests — but he only did so to criticize Nike. The Trump administration has long been at odds with Nike’s positions on social issues. The company recently removed Houston Rockets merchandise from stores in China after the Rockets’ manager Daryl Morey publicly expressed support for the Hong Kong protests. Pence’s tweet mocked Nike for claiming to be a “social-justice champion” but “checking its social conscience at the door” regarding Hong Kong. He also said that “Hong Kong is a living example of what can happen when China embraces liberty,” which both oversimplifies the situation and ignores China’s problematic track record with its massacre of pro-democracy student protesters at Tiananmen Square, religious persecution of East Turkestan Muslim Uighurs in concentration camps and the fights for independence in Tibet and Taiwan.
The House unanimously passed the Hong Kong Rights and Democracy Act on Oct. 15, which says the U.S. will support democratic efforts in Hong Kong. Hong Kong activists testified in front of Congress to urge the bill’s passing. But perhaps the U.S. is just that — a symbol. As with many other bills passed through the House, the Senate has not brought it to the floor, despite almost one-third of its members co-sponsoring the bill. However, that didn’t stop Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), who would be responsible for taking the bill onto the floor, from capitalizing on the opportunity to criticize the NBA for attempting to appease China over Morey’s statement. Using Hong Kong as a bargaining chip to advance other political agendas shows that many U.S. politicians do not fully support the movement — they only seek to use it as leverage.
In June, during a phone call between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump promised to stay silent on the issue of Hong Kong to ensure the continuation of trade talks. This led to the cancelation of a scheduled speech in Washington by the U.S. Consul General to Hong Kong. Trump’s administration also refused to stop U.S. sales of anti-riot gear — including batons, pepper spray and tear gas — to the Hong Kong police.
Hong Kong is more than a bargaining chip in the political machinations of U.S. politicians who think they don’t have a stake in the outcome of the protests. There are real consequences for Hong Kong if the protestors’ demands are not met and autonomy is not restored; it will not just be a lost playing card in a game between two major countries. U.S. politicians need to stop taking advantage of the protests to further their own agendas.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 4, 2019 print edition. Email Alexandra Chan at [email protected]