Does the World Owe Anything to Hong Kong?

Since 1997, mainland China has consistently threatened and undermined Hong Kong’s burgeoning democracy. Recent events raise the prospect that Beijing will soon end Hong Kong’s hopes for democratic self-governance. The death of democratization concerns many, but who, if anyone, has the obligation to act on those concerns? I argue that all those who believe in democratic principles bear such a responsibility.

In 2015, four men who worked in Hong Kong disappeared. They each worked with Causeway Bay Bookstore, a Hong Kong shop notorious for selling books critical of China’s political leadership. For four months, no one was sure about the location of these men. Family members filed missing person reports and the world watched and waited to see if they would turn up again. Many suspected China of kidnapping the four, but the allegations went unconfirmed until February when China finally admitted that they were holding all four men.

In response, several countries, Amnesty International, and the European Parliament condemned China’s actions and demanded explanations. But the incident has been particularly troubling for Hong Kong residents who saw the disappearances as a politically motivated abduction from mainland China, further eroding the legal autonomy of Hong Kong. This and other incidents have Hong Kong’s autonomy an increasingly uncertain prospect.

In 1997, the United Kingdom handed Hong Kong to China under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which provided for a “one country, two systems” approach to Hong Kong. Hong Kong would be a part of China, but with a different legal, social, and economic system, and under the Joint Declaration, Hong Kong’s laws were supposed to remain “basically unchanged.”

But there is no disputing the dramatic changes that Hong Kong has experienced in recent years. Hong Kong’s freedom of the media has fallen from the 18th to 71st freest in the world. Freedom of the press, protected in Hong Kong’s constitution and by the Declaration, is an integral part of maintaining democratic systems. In 2007, China somewhat accepted Hong Kong’s democratization by allowing for universal suffrage in Hong Kong’s 2017 elections for chief executive. Beijing quickly undercut this trend, however, by retaining the right to decide which candidates may run. In response, many took to the streets in protest. Their civil disobedience resulted in the closing of schools, businesses, and even bus lines.

China today shows no signs of changing its stance towards Hong Kong. In a 2014 white paper, the Chinese government stated, “China’s central government has comprehensive jurisdiction over all local administrative regions, including [Hong Kong]. The high degree of autonomy of [Hong Kong] is not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorization by the central leadership [in Beijing].” This is patently false; Hong Kong’s autonomy originates from the Sino-British Joint Declaration, where China agreed to grant Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy.” The statement, however, marks an ominous portent for Hong Kong’s future.

With Hong Kong’s once-burgeoning democracy eroded daily by pressures from mainland China, the world seems poised to lose another democracy. Something about this situation feels inherently wrong; dying democracies evoke great concern. But does anyone have the obligation to act on this concern? Are there peoples or states that have a duty to preserve democracy in Hong Kong?

The UK, as the country that agreed to hand over Hong Kong to China, would seem to bear some prima facie obligation for seeing that their agreement with China was executed properly. Indeed, a select committee of UK legislators has taken on the task of studying how the Joint Declaration has been implemented. But the Chinese government has banned them from Hong Kong, stating that Hong Kong was purely China’s “internal affair” and that the committee’s presence would be akin to a colonial intervention. Pro-Beijing lawyers also filed a complaint with the United Nations regarding the committee’s conduct.

Legal obligations have been similarly sterile in other contexts as well. In 1992, the United States passed the Hong-Kong Policy Act, vowing to support the Joint Declaration and the democratization of Hong Kong. The extent of this support, however, is occasional funding for civil society and democracy groups in Hong Kong and diplomatic expressions of disappointment whenever China blocks Hong Kong democracy.

Part of the problem surrounding state action is the continuing ambiguity about legal obligations in regards to Hong Kong. The entire Joint Declaration, including the Appendix, spans a measly twelve pages, and it doesn’t even address how other parties can ensure that China abides by the Joint Declaration. The problem of vague commitments extends to the US’s Hong-Kong Policy Act, which has excellent aspirations but few concrete commitments to Hong Kong democracy.

But legal obligations are hardly the only ones of significance. For individuals, it is often our moral convictions that move us. Do people have any moral obligations to support Hong Kong’s bid for democracy?

If we can agree on the following three fundamentals, then we have a strong case for supporting Hong Kong’s democratization. Firstly, we must agree that modern democracy is a more just form of government than an authoritarian state. Secondly, people have a duty to advance the cause of justice even when it does not directly affect them. Thirdly, countries will be either persuaded or unaffected by international influences.

If we agree on these things, then we can see how people internationally have a duty to support Hong Kong and other countries in their efforts towards democracy. The reasoning looks something like this:

Because we have a duty to advance the cause of justice, we have a duty to support modern democracies over authoritarian states. Hong Kong has the potential to attain a modern democracy, so we should support their democratization and reject China’s bids to increasing authoritarian control over Hong Kong. In this support, we should exert whatever influence we can to change China’s ways. This is because our influence will not harm Hong Kong’s chances for democracy and may potentially help it, as countries are either persuaded or unaffected by such influence. Consequently, we have a duty to support Hong Kong’s democratization.

Now it’s possible that other, competing obligations outweigh this duty. The obligation to support one’s family, for example, likely exceeds the obligation to support Hong Kong’s democratization. Nonetheless, the argument clearly gives each of us, as individuals, a prima facie duty to Hong Kong, and we neglect this duty at the peril of offending justice.

Hong Kong’s democratization has stalled at a perilous stage. The Chinese government remains eager to assert more control over Hong Kong’s future, and internationally, there isn’t any strong opposition. The Joint Declaration that handed Hong Kong over to China contains certain promises to the Hong Kong people. They were supposed to remain “highly autonomous,” with “rights and freedoms” that would remain enshrined in law. It’s clear that China has not fulfilled these promises. Now it becomes a question of how will the members of the international community respond. Will democratization be allowed to stall and fade away? Or shall we, members of a global community, guarantee the promises that govern Hong Kong’s future ourselves?