Written by Steven Feldstein
Earlier this month, hundreds of Hong Kongers thronged outside a courthouse in West Kowloon to protest the arrest of 47 activists and opposition lawmakers, who were attending an arraignment hearing inside. When the police took them into custody in early January, along with eight other activists, it was one of the most brazen acts of repression in the city since Beijing imposed a new national security law on Hong Kong last summer. With this latest action, Hong Kong authorities have jailed or driven into exile every notable opposition voice in the territory.
The national security law was designed to crack down on pro-democracy protests and restore government control to the restive city. Before the coronavirus pandemic temporarily quieted political activity, Hong Kongers had spent months organizing vast demonstrations in the streets. At times, the masses of citizens marching reached astonishing levels, with organizers estimating that more than 1 million people had turned out for a mass demonstration on June 9, 2019, to protest a proposed law that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China.
By 2020, the Chinese Communist Party had reached a breaking point. Its leadership decided to deploy expansive new legal authorities, combined with a heavy-handed security posture, to turn the political tide. The new law gave Hong Kong police far greater discretion to enact surveillance and censorship provisions and criminalized a wide set of activities.
The 47 lawmakers and activists, for example, were arrested for daring to organize unofficial primary elections in July 2020, an act that the city’s security minister, John Lee, said was as good as attempting to overthrow Hong Kong’s government. They have been charged with “conspiracy to commit subversion” under the national security law, a charge that could carry a life sentence.
Despite assurances from Beijing last year that Hong Kong’s autonomy would “remain unchanged,” few harbored illusions about what the law was intended to accomplish: namely, to silence dissidents once and for all, while bringing an end to the “one country, two systems” arrangement that had allowed Hong Kong a measure of democracy following the British handover of the territory back to China in 1997. The more salient question was to what extent Chinese authorities would implement the law’s sweeping authority, and how swiftly they would do so.
Eight months after the law’s passage, China’s strategy is clear. Government officials have aggressively pursued criminal charges and convictions, and have operated on a much shorter timeline than expected. In the meantime, the West’s attention to Hong Kong has faltered. While liberal democracies resoundingly condemned the law’s passage and have expressed outrage from time to time over China’s crackdown, they often give precedence to other priorities. Yet there is still much that democracies, particularly the U.S., could do to help Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s New Reality
The situation in Hong Kong is grim and getting steadily worse. “People are slow to recognize how fast Hong Kong is deteriorating,” one scholar in Hong Kong told me. “In people’s minds, they still think Hong Kong is semi-decent. In reality, tens of thousands have already left,” he said, seeking refuge in more open societies.
Immediately after the national security law went into effect on June 30 last year, Hong Kong authorities began their crackdown on protesters, independent journalists and leading activists. In early August, a police squadron raided the offices of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily and jailed its founder, media tycoon Jimmy Lai. As he awaits trial, the court has mandated an unusual set of restrictions: Lai is banned from social media and prohibited from giving interviews or even leaving his house. The government has also gone after younger activists, including Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam, leaders of the student pro-democracy movement who in December received monthslong prison sentences for participating in an “unauthorized assembly” in 2019.
The scope of repression has not been limited to these high-profile arrests, as ordinary citizens have felt the brunt of it, too. A new tactic deployed by the Hong Kong police involves “digital sweeps” to confiscate mobile phones and other devices from citizens, which are then reportedly sent to labs in mainland China that use sophisticated exfiltration technology to examine the contents.
Hong Kong authorities are also blocking access to certain websites. HKChronicles, a pro-democracy forum that discloses the personal information of police officers and pro-Beijing figures, has been rendered inaccessible to users in Hong Kong. One of the city’s leading internet service providers, Hong Kong Broadband Network, confirmed that it disabled access to the site “in compliance” with the national security law. That was the first time authorities had blocked a Hong Kong website for censorship purposes.
This digital censorship and surveillance is set to worsen, though, with the proposal of a new law in January that would require all citizens to provide their real names and personal information when purchasing a SIM card for their mobile phones. While justified as a crime-fighting provision, the law’s real purpose would be to further constrict Hong Kongers’ privacy and to give law enforcement agencies an enhanced ability to acquire registration records without a warrant.
The heavy-handed implementation of the national security law has prompted an exodus from the city. With 5 million Hong Kong residents now eligible to apply for visas to the United Kingdom, experts estimate that 300,000 people—and possibly many more—will apply for extended residency there in the next five years. Companies and foreign investors, too, are looking for better prospects in other regional centers. In fact, 2020 was the first year in over a decade in which the number of foreign companies with offices in Hong Kong dropped, with 52 banks and financial firms, as well as 24 insurers, leaving the city for other locations, according to Nikkei Asia.
Meanwhile, the companies and law firms staying put for now are instituting protective measures to guard against the continued erosion of the territory’s rule of law. One signal of their unease is the growing practice of writing Hong Kong out of governing law and arbitration clauses, because companies are wary that Beijing’s politicized system could affect future rulings on contract disputes. Instead, firms are considering alternative jurisdictions like Singapore, where they have much greater business and political confidence over a 10- or 20-year horizon.
Normally in such situations, the concept of what is known as the “dictator’s digital dilemma” might apply. That describes the trade-off authoritarian governments increasingly face between political control and economic growth when restricting things like internet access. An authoritarian government can generally either assert greater political control and thereby sacrifice economic growth, or, alternatively, allow citizens to make full use of digital technologies while giving up a measure of political authority. For example, if the authorities were to shut down the internet to suppress dissent, they might bring about immense economic costs from stifling commercial activity. When confronted with such an unappealing trade-off, most leaders will blink and don’t implement the most repressive measures.
But China is an exception. Because of the immense size of its economy and political clout, it can dictate the terms of commercial engagement and most companies will play along. This pattern is apparent in Hong Kong. China’s bet is that it can clamp down on Hong Kong’s political freedoms and companies will largely tolerate these actions.
But even if China’s wager is wrong, it probably doesn’t matter. Hong Kong’s financial worth to China is much diminished from the past. China’s economic expansion over the past two decades has allowed it to develop an abundance of options, with growing financial centers in cities like Shanghai and even Shenzhen—right on Hong Kong’s border. As a result, Hong Kong is more of a symbolic prize for Xi Jinping rather than a vital economic one. The leverage Hong Kong once wielded to push back against China’s encroachment has been significantly reduced, and the ability of Western countries to threaten China’s interests by pulling their businesses out of Hong Kong has similarly faded.
Given Xi’s steely determination to remove the last remnants of Hong Kong’s special status, the United States and its democratic allies have limited options for pushing back. No matter what policies the U.S. chooses to enact—such as implementing visa bans or financial sanctions against complicit officials in Hong Kong and mainland China—they are unlikely to affect the larger outcome. Perhaps in recognition of this reality, the same Hong Kong scholar told me that “there is a huge fear that Biden will sell out Hong Kong.”
Yet this doesn’t mean that policymakers should abandon efforts to raise the costs of China’s clampdown, only that the policy community should be realistic about what is achievable.
Why Hong Kong Is Worth Saving
There are several important reasons why the United States should make the effort to defend Hong Kong’s autonomy and democratic freedoms. For one, staying resolute on Hong Kong and continuing to call out China’s behavior will be an important signal that President Joe Biden’s team is fully committed to countering China’s authoritarian agenda, and that democracy and human rights considerations will remain bedrock principles for the new team. Not only will this lay an important marker with China’s leadership, but it will correspondingly demonstrate to other authoritarian leaders in the region the seriousness of Biden’s agenda.
Democratic trends in Southeast Asia have displayed sharp declines—what Joshua Kurlantzick, a frequent WPR contributor and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, described as “a kind of diffusion effect in reverse, in contrast to the diffusion effect that can occur during waves of democratization.” February’s military coup in Myanmar is one of many examples illustrating the region’s political reversals. The Philippines has labored under the illiberal rule of President Rodrigo Duterte since 2016. In Thailand, the government transitioned to civilian leadership in 2019 under inauspicious circumstances: It disqualified opposition candidates, rigged voting results and then made the head of the military junta, Prayuth Chan-ocha, the new prime minister, despite the fact that a majority of voters rejected him on the ballot. Indonesia is also undergoing its own democratic regression, as its political leadership systematically undercuts democratic norms and institutions in favor of political security.
While signals from Washington alone won’t be sufficient to reverse these trends, they will demonstrate the policy consequences to other autocratic regimes considering clampdowns of their own. Defending Hong Kong would also back up Biden’s public commitment to hosting a Summit for Democracy this year, convening major democratic leaders worldwide around a revitalized agenda for shoring up liberal governance. The summit would serve, as Biden wrote in Foreign Affairs last year, to build a “united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations.” It would be incongruous for the Biden administration to ramp up efforts to organize the summit, while at the same time shying away from challenging China on Hong Kong in light of the myriad abuses taking place there.
From a technology perspective, pushing back on China sends other important signals. By and large, most U.S. tech companies have withstood Chinese demands to hand over user data or take down user content. There is little indication that corporations such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft and LinkedIn are reconsidering their promises to suspend cooperation with Hong Kong authorities due to the national security law.
But small cracks have started to appear. Rather than committing to pause the fulfillment of any data requests from the Hong Kong government, Apple simply said it was “assessing” its policy in the wake of the national security law, causing concern that it would eventually give in to these requests. Later, the company excluded a pro-democracy app, PopVote, which was used to organize those unofficial primary elections, from its App Store; notably, the Google Play Store continued carrying the app. Apple had previously been criticized for removing two other apps from the Chinese App Store during the height of the pro-democracy protests in 2019: the Quartz news app, which was allegedly targeted because of the news site’s coverage of the protests, and the app version of HKmap.live, a program developed in 2019 to allow protesters to track police activity in Hong Kong.
As long as the tech community trusts that the United States and other democracies are maintaining strong human rights positions, they are unlikely to cave to China’s demands. But if they detect that the United States will soon ease its pressure on China, then they may, too, reverse course.
What Can Biden Do on Hong Kong?
Perhaps the most important signal Biden’s team can convey on Hong Kong is its commitment to maintaining a firm line against Beijing’s actions. So far, Biden and his top foreign policy aides have been consistently on message. In Biden’s first call with Xi, he stressed his concerns about “Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive actions in the region,” according to a statement released by the White House. After the Hong Kong police arrested the 55 lawmakers and activists in January, Antony Blinken, the new U.S. secretary of state, sent a critical tweet affirming that Biden would “stand with the people of Hong Kong and against Beijing’s crackdown on democracy.”
Other aides have echoed similar sentiments. Even statements that do not relate specifically to Hong Kong, such as Blinken’s assertion that China is carrying out a genocide against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, could provide a glimmer of hope to Hong Kong’s activists, two of whom—Nathan Law and Alex Chow—in December penned a New York Times op-ed warning that if Biden does not prioritize human rights, “more activists will be sacrificed, and more essential democratic values, too.” With that in mind, the messages coming out of Washington in the first months of the administration are vitally important.
There is little question that the Chinese Communist Party will seize upon any opportunity to pressure U.S. policymakers to give up their human rights concerns for other policy goals. For example, there has been some chatter that China would dangle cooperation on climate change in exchange for downgrading human rights priorities. Biden’s team has forcefully pushed back on these insinuations; in his first press briefing, climate envoy John Kerry insisted that U.S. “differences” with China “will never be traded for anything that has to do with climate.” In contrast, the EU recently adopted a notably weaker stance on Hong Kong and China’s other human rights abuses while it was concluding its recently signed investment deal with Beijing, with French President Emmanuel Macron warning that it would be “counterproductive” for the U.S. and EU to “join all together against China.”
The United States should continue to uphold the sanctions policies initiated by Trump against the Hong Kong and Chinese officials who are leading the crackdown, such as the city’s pro-Beijing chief executive, Carrie Lam. While these actions may not induce significant changes in their behavior, they are important for demonstrating U.S. resolve on human rights and for levying a cost to China’s repressive policies. The U.S. should also put pressure on companies peddling surveillance equipment and related technologies to dissuade them from doing business with Hong Kong and Beijing.
One example of the good this strategy can do is the case of the Israeli firm Cellebrite, which once provided phone-hacking services to authorities in both Hong Kong and mainland China. In 2019 and 2020 alone, Hong Kong police used Cellebrite’s software to hack into 4,000 mobile phones confiscated from citizens and democracy activists, and used the data to justify numerous arrests. Cellebrite put an end to its Hong Kong sales after Israeli human rights lawyer Eitay Mack filed a court petition against the company; as a result, Beijing has had to come up with a new, more onerous way to hack cell phones, raising the cost of its draconian measures.
Finally, the United States should consider other creative steps to undercut China’s strategy in Hong Kong. Why not, for example, open up America’s borders to immigrants from Hong Kong? In a recent interview, Blinken showed support for the idea, emphasizing that if Hong Kongers are “the victims of repression from Chinese authorities, we should do something to give them haven.” This could involve, as CFR’s Elizabeth Economy has suggested, granting asylum and special visas to specific classes of individuals. Or Biden could make an even bolder move and offer up permanent residence to any Hong Kong citizens who apply.
Another point of leverage is the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing. A growing number of human rights groups are calling for a boycott of the games due to the Hong Kong crackdown and the abuses of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. They argue that allowing Beijing to remain the Olympics host will fulfill Xi’s objective of normalizing China’s repressive behavior. While it is improbable that the International Olympic Committee will take the games away from Beijing, the United States and its democratic allies should not allow China’s Olympic propaganda attempts to go unchecked.
As Christopher Walker, Jessica Ludwig and Shanthi Kalathil, who is now the White House’s chief democracy coordinator, have written, China and Russia deliberately employ an external “sharp power” strategy designed to “gain control over the tools for disseminating information, images, and ideas.” They have purposefully expanded their media footprint and implemented a program of information distortion and censorship in order to manipulate public perceptions in local markets around the world.
The Winter Olympics provide an ideal forum for China to execute this sharp power strategy on a larger scale, as it gives Beijing a global stage on which to assert that it has successfully confronted the coronavirus pandemic; that its authoritarian model has fostered economic prosperity and growth, despite shrinking political freedoms; and that reports of human rights atrocities are simply Western exaggerations. China’s efforts will likely bear fruit if democracies don’t take it upon themselves to actively counterprogram against Communist Party narratives, such as by broadcasting satellite images of Xinjiang’s so-called reeducation camps, airing stories about the indiscriminate arrests in Hong Kong, and sharing accounts of the omnipresent surveillance monitoring in cities like Chongqing.
Small, innovative initiatives can also make a difference. For two weeks in January and February, the audio app Clubhouse was accessible to users in China, and observers described a flood of intense, open and unregulated group conversations. Chinese citizens recounted how they changed their perspective on Hong Kong after moving to the city and realizing the benefits of its commitment to the rule of law. Ethnic Uyghurs described to Han Chinese their shock about seeing parents and siblings vanish into a warren of government detention camps, and the challenge of not being able to communicate with them or even ascertain if they were still alive. The Chinese government inevitably blocked the app, but as New York Times reporter Li Yuan wrote, the momentary détente allowed mainlanders to “prove that they aren’t brainwashed drones. People who had been demonized got a chance to speak out and be humanized.”
With tensions ratcheting up between the United States and China, it is important to remember that, just as Trump did not exemplify the values and perspectives of the U.S. citizenry, neither does Xi represent the full viewpoint of the Chinese people. It is important—symbolically and geopolitically—for democracies to stand up for Hong Kong, even if the prospects of changing China’s behavior are remote. Indisputably, Biden’s team will have its hands full grappling with how to devise an effective strategy to constrain China’s worst impulses while being open to exploring limited opportunities for cooperation on issues of global importance, like climate change. As Biden weighs the pros and cons of his different options, he should make sure to keep the plight of Hong Kong’s people front of mind.