WASHINGTON—The Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) held a hearing Nov. 20 on the way forward in Hong Kong. The Commission wanted to respond to charges by China of United States interference in Hong Kong affairs, and to hear testimony from China experts on the role that the United States should play.
The consensus at the hearing was that the United States and other democracies need to provide more public support for the protesters. Also mentioned often was that China needs to be held accountable to its treaty and legal obligations.
American interests are very much in play in Hong Kong, said Dr. Richard C. Bush III, from the Brookings Institution. About 1200 U.S. companies have a presence there, and some 60,000 Americans reside in Hong Kong. “Many more U.S. residents of Hong Kong origin live in the United States, and make a significant contribution to our society,” he said.
If Hong Kong’s leaders, influenced by Beijing, totally reject the public’s demands for democracy, Hong Kong’s special status and prosperity, as a financial center in Asia, will be put at risk, said Mark P. Lagon, former U.S. ambassador-at-large, U.S. Department of State, from 2007 to 2009. It could become “just another Chinese city racked with corruption, censorship, and pollution,” he said.
“The People’s Republic of China made a promise to the international community that the people of Hong Kong would enjoy certain freedoms and could freely elect their leaders … . Now the PRC is backtracking on their promises. Some in China are seeking to distract from this issue by claiming the United States is behind these protests. No straight, right-thinking person believes that…The desire of the people of Hong Kong for freedom and for democracy is genuine,” said Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, who is the current chairman of the CECC.
The CECC co-chair, New Jersey Representative Chris Smith said there is “no ‘black hand’ of foreign forces behind the protests,” and that Beijing should look at its “less than subtle oversight” if it wants to understand the reasons for the protests.
“It’s a slur on those wonderfully principled young people and other … to pretend that somehow they are puppets of outsiders. It’s a disgrace to say that,” said, via video teleconference, Rt. Hon. Lord Christopher Francis Patten of Barnes, who was the final British governor of Hong Kong, 1992-1997, before the handoff in 1997. He is currently Chancellor of the University of Oxford.
At the APEC meetings in Beijing a few weeks ago, President Obama made clear to Chinese leader Xi jinping “that the Hong Kong protest movement was homegrown,” said Bush.
China Breaking Promise
Patten said that Hong Kong’s freedom and autonomy were guaranteed in a treaty registered with the United Nations, the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
“But there are obligations under the treaty. There are obligations that Britain had to China before 1997 and since 1997, China has to Britain,” Patten said.
British ministers and parliamentarians “have a right and moral obligation to continue to check on whether China is keeping its side of the bargain,” he said in written testimony, where he also quoted China’s chief negotiator on Hong Kong, Lu Ping, who told the People’s Daily that Hong Kong would have full authority to choose its method of implementing universal suffrage, and would only report to the mainland what was decided.
Lu Ping said, “How Hong Kong develops its democracy in the future is completely within the sphere of the autonomy of Hong Kong. The central government will not interfere.”
Whereas the Hong Kong’s Basic Law guarantees ‘one country, two systems,’ till 2047, “Chinese officials continue to redefine and reinterpret the law,” said Lagon. Ambassador Lagon will become president of Freedom House in January 2015.
Ambassador Lagon remarked that when Hong Kongers took to the streets to protest the ruling that the next chief executive must be elected from a pre-selected pool of candidates, “the police did nothing to protect them from thuggish attacks by CCP supporters.” The aggression by police and the use of tear gas was troubling, said Lagon because the “demonstrators had taken no violent action and because the aggression was a clear violation of the right to peacefully assemble.” Article 27 of the Basic Law guarantees freedom of speech and press.
Joshua Wong, a leader of the movement, was arrested with many others. Lagon said that Wong was detained for more than 40 hours. His lawyers had to file a habeas corpus petition to obtain his release. Incidentally, this petition does not exist in China, Lagon noted.
Patten said, “I think it is extremely sad that the government in Hong Kong hasn’t shown any statesmanship in trying to move towards a dialogue with the students…”
“The international community, including the United States, should publicly support the aspirations of the people of Hong Kong…Public support will demonstrate to China that the international community is not backing down on human rights, and to pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong and China that they are not alone,” said Lagon.
Patten said that he would welcome less restraint on the part of the United Kingdom government’s comments on what has been happening in Hong Kong. He further urged talking more about autonomy, freedom, and democracy in Hong Kong, and “having a spotlight on that.”
“I think talking about these issues and making a public case out of them, matters enormously [to China.]”
Ambassador Lagon observed that the CCP has been blocking conventional and social media coverage of the Hong Kong news. He cited a forthcoming Freedom House report to be released on Dec. 4 that found that “CCP censorship in China during October 2014 were even more intense than in June 2014, which was the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.”
Chief Executive Can Provide Genuine Choice
Lord Patten understands the intricacies of Hong Kong government well because of his role as governor of Hong Kong. Patten said, “Chief Executive C. Y. Leung and his government have considerable room for maneuver.” The report that Leung’s officials submitted to Beijing “plainly understated the degree of public support for change.” Leung needs to submit a corrected report, he said.
The current method of the 1,200 member election committee that chooses the chief executive permits the Chinese government to veto any candidate that it does not like, which he characterized as an “Iranian-style election: ‘You can vote for anyone we choose.'”
Patten said this method violates the Basic Law which states that the election committee should be “broadly representative.” He notes that the committee’s membership comprise only 7 percent of the total Hong Kong electorate. Further, “its procedures seek to prevent the nomination of any candidates who may harbor democratic sympathies.” The power resides with the Hong Kong government to open up the nominating process for candidates.
Patten also raised the issue of the election of legislatures, which has been absent from the student’s demands. “It is surprising that 17 years after the handover of sovereignty from the United Kingdom to China, Hong Kong still does not have a directly elected legislature,” he said.
Patten said he has made several proposals since July that would broaden the electoral base of the election committee and modify the way the chief executive is elected, which were within the powers of Leung and his colleagues to implement, but they have not acted on any of them.
Bush said that a compromise was available in the spring and summer of this year on how to elect Hong Kong’s chief executive that would probably have ensured a “competitive election,” but the PRC’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee on Aug. 31st ignored these proposals. He thought it still might be feasible to obtain a competitive outcome within the narrow parameters that Beijing laid down.
Both Bush and Lagon fully support identical bills introduced Nov. 13 in the House of Representatives (H.R. 5696) and the Senate (S. 2922), by Rep. Smith and Sen. Brown, respectively. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act amends the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992 to direct the Secretary of State to report to Congress on conditions in Hong Kong that are of U.S. interest, by March 31, 2015, and annually thereafter. The bills state that this report would include “the development of democratic institutions in Hong Kong.”
The last time this report was issued was in 2007. Reinstating reporting requirements would assist Congress in assessing progress in Hong Kong’s democracy.
Congress established in 2000 the Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC) to investigate and encourage China’s compliance with international human rights standards and the rule of law in the People’s Republic of China. The Commission consists of nine members from the House of Representatives, nine from the Senate, and five senior Administration officials appointed by the President.