An Overly Aggressive U.S. Approach to Hong Kong Risks Playing Into China’s Hands

An Overly Aggressive U.S. Approach to Hong Kong Risks Playing Into China’s Hands
People gather for a vigil to remember the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, despite permission for it being officially denied, in Hong Kong, June 4, 2020 (AP photo by Vincent Yu).

Editor’s Note: Guest columnists Neil Bhatiya and Eric Lorber are filling in for Kimberly Ann Elliott, who will be back next week.

At the end of May, responding to efforts by Beijing to decisively assert control in Hong Kong, the Trump administration declared that it no longer recognized the city as sufficiently autonomous to enjoy special economic and financial privileges under U.S. law. The decertification sets the stage for a range of measures the United States could pursue, some of which could be economically damaging to Hong Kong’s status as a global financial hub. While China’s violations of the agreed-upon status quo regarding civil liberties and political autonomy in Hong Kong are worthy of a robust U.S. response, the administration should carefully calibrate its approach in order to minimize the collateral damage to Hong Kong itself. That means mixing limited sanctions and other tools, while broadening the number of voices criticizing Beijing’s posture.

Economic pressure, after all, is unlikely to cause China to completely reverse course on Hong Kong. The national security law being imposed on the city is designed to curtail the protests that have roiled Hong Kong for a year—protests that began in resistance to a proposed extradition law but morphed quickly into an expression of general disapproval of Beijing’s growing influence and attempt to unwind the “one country, two systems” arrangement for Hong Kong’s autonomy. Chinese officials have begun only in the past few days to see the situation in Hong Kong as a challenge to the Communist Party of China itself, suggesting how high the stakes are.

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