The United States risks emboldening China’s suppression of restive minorities and disaffected regions under its sway unless officials take tougher measures to condemn Beijing’s actions toward Hong Kong, experts and Chinese dissidents say.
Protests continued on Tuesday in Hong Kong near government headquarters, where dozens have been arrested and police have used batons, pepper spray, and tear gas to disperse crowds.
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The demonstrators say China has denied them universal suffrage by issuing a ruling in August, which required candidates for Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2017 to still receive approval from a mostly pro-Beijing nominating committee.
China promised free elections to Hong Kong in 2017 when it regained control of the territory from Britain in 1997. The protesters, mostly students and young adults who are struggling economically, say Beijing has now broken that pledge.
China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), keeps a unit in Hong Kong that could be deployed if the protests continue to swell—raising fears of another bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters like the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
"[China] will do anything that they think they need to do to quell any dissent in any of these places—Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong—and what we should be concerned about is then Taiwan," said Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), in an interview. "That implicates the U.S. and other powers as well."
Blumenthal argued that U.S. officials should consider tougher measures to press Beijing on its denial of freedoms to Hong Kong. The White House has so far only said that it supports "universal suffrage in Hong Kong" and the "aspirations of the Hong Kong people."
Blumenthal suggested that one option is for President Obama to invoke his authority under the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992 to not treat Hong Kong differently from China under the law. Hong Kong is currently afforded special technology access and security cooperation that is denied to Beijing under the act, but those privileges would evaporate if the president determines that Hong Kong is not sufficiently autonomous to justify separate legal treatment.
"It provides the president with great discretion to say, ‘if China is not living up to its promise of ‘one country, two systems,’ then Hong Kong should not be treated as a separate entity from China,’" he said. "If that started to happen it will affect China. It won’t be a great place to do business and China will have to actually deal with the consequences of what they’ve done in Hong Kong."
Three former political prisoners in China also called on the Obama administration to do more to pressure Beijing on Tuesday in a strongly worded Wall Street Journal op-ed.
"While the Tiananmen Square massacre surprised the world, this time the world is on notice," they wrote. "The Obama administration should press the Chinese government to honor its promise of democratic elections in Hong Kong. The White House also must more forcefully condemn the violence against demonstrators—the administration’s response so far has been inadequate."
China’s crackdown in Hong Kong comes during a year that has seen increased government pressure on ethnic minorities in other parts of the country. At least 400 people have died in China’s western region of Xinjiang in the past year, and police have detained hundreds. Many of those killed were ethnic Uighurs—a mostly Muslim ethnic group, some of whom say Beijing’s harsh rule undermines their cultural independence and threatens to radicalize their population.
After knife-wielding Muslim assailants killed 29 people at a train station in March in southwestern China, the government began providing police with guns for the first time in decades. A new order permitted police—despite having little to no training—to shoot suspected "terrorists" instantly.
Police opened fire on Tibetan protesters in an August incident, wounding 10.
Although Chinese President Xi Jinping recently suggested that his government’s arrangement with Hong Kong could be a model for Taiwan—another entity that wants more autonomy from Beijing—Taiwanese residents were reportedly dismayed by the scenes of protesters attempting to ward off tear gas with umbrellas.
Blumenthal noted that the United States has legal obligations under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to maintain Taiwan’s defensive capabilities. China continues to aim about 1,000 short-range ballistic missiles at the island to deter it from seeking independence.
"The Taiwanese are taking a look at [these protests] and saying, ‘China won’t keep their word,’" said Blumenthal. "Why should we trust China in negotiations?"
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.