The Limits of Internationalizing Hong Kong’s Democracy Struggle

Chun Hey Kot

'New Perspectives on Asia' highlights the research of junior CSIS staff and interns on issues that are quietly shaping the world's most dynamic region.

Repression in Hong Kong is not slowing down. Since Beijing enacted the Hong Kong national security law in 2020, governments of Western liberal democracies have condemned human rights violations in Hong Kong, erected sanctions against select Chinese and Hong Kong officials, changed Hong Kong’s legal status to reflect its loss of autonomy, and announced diplomatic boycotts of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. But Beijing has only tightened its grip: revamping Hong Kong’s electoral system to allow only ‘patriotic’ candidates to run for office, crushing press freedom, and suffocating civil society. More and more activists and pro-democracy figures are being put in jail.

Why has Beijing’s clampdown persisted despite international pressure? One could argue that international pressure failed to impose costs unacceptable to Beijing. On the one hand, in the last decade, Xi Jinping has made national greatness and unification a top priority. He is willing to accept a large cost margin to assert sovereignty over Hong Kong. Activists miscalculated when they wagered that Beijing would balk if Hong Kong’s international reputation was at stake. Hong Kong’s brand as an international business hub, valuable as it is, was something Beijing was prepared to lose.

On the other hand, international pressure was perhaps never sufficiently costly due to the lack of Western leverage on China. Proponents of laam chau, or a scorched-earth tactic, correctly observe that Hong Kong’s dense ties to Western countries enhance the democracy movement’s international salience. However, international attention does not directly translate into Western leverage over Hong Kong’s government. With China exerting firm control over the city, Western countries must gain leverage over China to influence political processes in Hong Kong. 

It is extremely difficult to gain and exercise leverage over China. The level of Western leverage, defined as the target government’s vulnerability to external pressure, depends on at least three factors: the target state’s raw size; the existence of competing issues on Western foreign policy agenda; and the target state’s access to political, economic, or military support from an alternative regional power.

First, the sheer size of China’s economy and its rapidly modernizing military has bolstered Chinese leaders’ confidence to shun external pressures. In fact, instead of becoming vulnerable to foreign pressure, China possesses sizable leverage over foreign countries and businesses, using the lure of its lucrative markets for economic coercion. Its size and power also mean that it can shrug off external pressure without another regional power’s help.

Moreover, China’s integration in the world economy, rather than creating Western leverage, has raised the cost of punishing China. Due to China’s central position in global finance and trade, severe economic punishment against China, such as sanctioning major Chinese banks, could inflict collateral damage to the United States. As U.S. policymakers adopt targeted sanctions and even contemplate partial decoupling, China is already turning its economy inward, attempting to insulate itself from external nodes of pressure. China will continue to depend on foreign supply of strategic goods like energy, but it is doubtful that top energy exporters, themselves with dubious human rights records, will play along with the West’s liberal agenda.

Second, competing priorities on the policy agenda complicate Western efforts to pressure China. Both the biggest emitter of carbon and producer of renewable technology, China is indispensable in global climate policy. Pragmatists perceive that beating down on China’s human rights violations will foreclose Western countries’ ability to cooperate with China on climate change. To avoid politicizing climate change, they are loath to press Beijing on ‘sensitive’ topics such as human rights.

Looking forward, despite President Biden’s efforts to center U.S. foreign policy around democracy, structural changes in the international system may further weaken Western leverage vis-a-vis authoritarian countries. After the Cold War ended, the United States, as the only remaining superpower in the world, enjoyed greater leeway to promote democracy globally. Today, the vestiges of U.S. unipolarity are slowly fading away. The United States is becoming less capable of enforcing the existing liberal world order, let alone expanding it to new places. The United States will increasingly be compelled to focus on a narrower range of national interests and competition with China, objectives that do not always align with the maximization of democracy abroad.

Between conserving the liberal world order and expanding it, there is still a large gray area for democratic gains. While it is unreasonable to advocate for ‘liberal crusades’ in Asia, the United States can support democratic activists in less costly ways. For example, the U.S. Congress should pass the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act, which would enable Hong Kongers to apply for refugee status from outside the United States. With the shutdown of prominent pro-democracy news outlets such as StandNews and Citizen News, the U.S. government should also bolster funding and support for Cantonese media in Hong Kong, such as Radio Free Asia. Any practical or moral support for democracy activists does and will continue to matter in the long fight against authoritarianism.

With Beijing’s iron grip on Hong Kong, many Hong Kongers pin their hopes on the ‘international battlefront,’ wishing that Western democracies would pry open the ‘fortress of autocracy’ and introduce opportunities for positive political change. However, with the relative decline of U.S. power, we must re-calibrate our expectations about what the United States can and should do as the leader of the liberal order. How the United States responds to structural changes to the international system will profoundly impact the liberal world order’s perceived legitimacy and sustenance. In an increasingly self-help international environment, democracy activists in Hong Kong and other places alike are preparing for the ‘long game,’ patiently waiting for domestic and international events to open up cracks in autocratic regimes. 

Chun Hey Kot is a former intern with the Reconnecting Asia Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington D.C.

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