Last week, after three months of increasingly violent protests, Hong Kong’s Chinese-backed government withdrew an extradition bill that would have removed the right of citizens to a fair trial.
The demonstrations, some of the largest since Britain transferred sovereignty of Hong Kong to China in 1997, are supported by a broad cross-section of society. Hong Kongers want their liberties protected and the territory’s autonomy respected.
By removing the extradition bill, chief executive Carrie Lam has made her first direct concession to the protesters. But she has refused to meet their other main demands. These include universal suffrage, an independent investigation into police misconduct and amnesty for protesters who have been arrested.
Moreover, Beijing views the protests as a national security issue. And it has the final say over how the Hong Kong government responds. More repressive action is likely if a softer response fails. Removing the bill could simply be a bait and switch.
Many commentators have compared what is happening in Hong Kong to the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in 1989, which ended in tragedy. But there is a more optimistic precedent: Solidarity in Communist Poland.
Formed in September 1980 by workers at the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, Solidarity was the first independent trade union in the Soviet bloc since the second world war. It played a decisive role in the downfall of communism because its defence of the ideal of self-determination made it a powerful symbol of resistance to Soviet domination.
Its success tells us two things. First, broadly popular movements are not easily extinguished, even by force. The Polish government outlawed Solidarity and arrested its leaders, but the movement and its ideals could not be snuffed out. They survived underground and emerged as a political force when the government legalised Solidarity in 1989.
Second, the US has a role to play. After the Polish government declared martial law in a crackdown on Solidarity in 1981, the US responded swiftly and robustly. It put sanctions on the government, suspended agricultural assistance and placed restrictions on technology exports to Poland. Most importantly, President Ronald Reagan made clear where the US stood. “Their cause is ours,” he said of Solidarity in his Christmas address in 1981.
Today, the US Congress has several options should the Chinese government decide to increase pressure on Hong Kong. One option, recently suggested by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, is to revisit the special relationship between the US and Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy act of 2019, which is supported by many of the protesters in the territory itself, would do just that. Introduced by Congressman Chris Smith in June, it would require the US government to examine whether Hong Kong is sufficiently autonomous to justify its special treatment. As Beijing has expanded its influence over the city, the respect for private property rights and freedom of the press on which that special relationship depends, have been jeopardised.
The act would require the US government to investigate possible human rights violations against the protesters, including accusations of arbitrary detentions and police brutality. If rights have been violated, the US could apply sanctions to punish those responsible.
In 1821, President John Quincy Adams said of America that “wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be”. Today, that standard is being unfurled in Hong Kong. Our hearts are with the people there. America must solemnly promise to stand with them in their struggle for freedom.
The writer is the Republican leader of the US House of Representatives