Many Hong Kongers are hopeful this legislation will give a boost to the struggle against the Chinese dictatorship. Unfortunately the reality is very different.
In 2014 and thereafter, British colonial flags were often brought to demos in Hong Kong, mostly by localist (Hong Kong nationalist) youth. Nowadays these have been replaced by US flags because nobody now expects much from Britain. It’s right-wing government has largely bent to the Chinese dictatorship’s pressure because the British capitalists are desperate for business especially as they are set to leave the EU. But the US is a superpower, the thinking goes, so it can help Hong Kong? Here’s why that is a cruel illusion:
Trump is most interested in a trade deal with Xi Jinping, which he hopes will save his presidency. Since June’s 1-2 million-strong demonstrations in Hong Kong, Trump and his representatives have agreed in talks with the Chinese side to downplay the Hong Kong issue. For Trump, the protesters are “rioters” while Xi is “an incredible guy” and his “very good friend”. Under pressure from Congress in recent days, Trump was forced to say “We have to stand with Hong Kong” but added, “I am also standing with Xi Jinping”. Even Trump’s critics who complain about his lack of clear support for the Hong Kong protests are primarily concerned with projecting US power and its economic interests. “Being tough on China when it comes to human rights will also help us win the battle on trade,” said Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, one of the act’s main sponsors.
Trump may even refuse to sign the Hong Kong act into law as a concession to Xi. The Chinese regime has immediately called on Trump to use his veto and is clearly linking this to trade negotiations. It threatened “countermeasures” if the act becomes law. More likely, Trump will sign it – or face accusations of weakness – but then just leave the law to gather dust in a cupboard. With desperate efforts by Washington to get a “phase one” (i.e. very weak) trade deal done before 15 December, when new tariffs are scheduled, it is very unlikely the law will be enforced in the short-term. Hence this is more about political theatre than anything concrete.
Even if Trump puts the new law into effect its impact will be largely symbolic. It allows for Hong Kong officials deemed guilty of human rights abuses to be sanctioned – refused a visa to enter the USA or have assets in US banks frozen. This won’t change the policies of the Chinese regime towards Hong Kong. But it will be used by Xi’s regime to whip up nationalism in China against ‘concessions’ to China’s enemies.
Another provision of the act is to require annual assessments of Hong Kong’s autonomy to determine whether it should continue to be treated differently in trade and economic terms from mainland China. This clause could open the way for the US government to revoke Hong Kong’s trade privileges (it has separate membership of the WTO and is not directly targeted by Trump’s tariffs against China). But this would be a “nuclear option”, seriously damaging the Chinese regime’s economic interests but at the same time reducing its incentive to hold back from further cancelling Hong Kong’s autonomy. The result could push Hong Kong further under the dictatorship’s control, clearly not an outcome most people in Hong Kong want.
The US Congress already passed similar legislation over the mass incarceration of Uighurs and other Turkic-speaking Muslims in China-controlled Xinjiang. This was passed amid considerable fanfare in the Senate in September but not much has happened since. This legislation allows the US political establishment to pose as defenders of democracy and human rights. In Xinjiang’s case the aim is to improve the image of the US in the Muslim world, following decades of disastrous military incursions as part of the so-called war on terror, and Islamophobic policies such as Trump’s failed travel ban in 2017 against people from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Similar sanctions were imposed on Russia in 2014, and these have not changed the policies of Putin’s regime. In fact if anything they have backfired on Western governments, boosting Putin’s nationalist stance. Russia’s military role in places like Syria has not been blunted. It has actually been strengthened by Trump’s other policies such as his decision this year to abandon the Kurdish militias, former US allies, to be massacred by the Turkish army.
Democratic change has never been brought about by ruling elites and governments, especially not the US which has supported many vicious repressive regimes (including China’s) for geopolitical gain. Working people can only rely on their own strength and own organisations – including international grassroots solidarity.