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On July 7, U.S President Joe Biden declared “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States” with regard to the situation in Hong Kong. The order extended the same designation made by last July by former U.S. President Donald Trump under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The declaration gives the president extensive powers over economic transactions and is often used to impose sanctions. It may indicate the Biden administration is preparing to take actions in response to Beijing’s ferocious assault on freedom in Hong Kong.  

According to the “Bearing Witness” tracking document compiled by the U.S. Consulate General in Hong Kong, 114 arrests have been made under the National Security Law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in June 2020. Those arrested include 47 democracy activists charged with subversion for staging an informal primary for pro-democracy voters. There are also national security charges against the founder and top editors and executives of the popular pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, which was forced to close through the use of the National Security Law’s sweeping financial powers. Other laws have been used to imprison leading democracy figures for peaceful protests, so the true toll of the crackdown is higher.  

Biden recently condemned the forced closure of Apple Daily and pledged “the United States will not waver in our support of people in Hong Kong.”  However, nothing the United States or its democratic allies have said or done has caused Beijing to scale back the intensifying repression in Hong Kong since the imposition of the National Security Law in June 2020. Indeed, the security secretary and police chief who enforce the ongoing crackdown were promoted to higher posts in June despite having been sanctioned by the U.S. in August 2020.  

A new report from the Atlantic Council, “Hong Kong’s Future on Edge: Countering China’s National Security Law,” urges Biden and other world leaders to make Hong Kong a defining issue in their relations with China. The report’s authors, Ash Jain, Joel Kesselbrenner and Peter Mattis, identify some targets for new sanctions: Hong Kong political and economic elites who have collaborated with Beijing. But their chief argument is that Hong Kong should be included in “a broader China strategy that will display a clear commitment from the world’s democracies to uphold the rules-based order they created and the values upon which it was founded.” That, they argue, requires that China be held to account for the violations of the treaty it entered with the United Kingdom committing to Hong Kong’s autonomy and civil liberties.  “Every day that China does not adhere to the Sino-British Joint Declaration,” they write, “is a day in which Beijing should pay a cost, have its freedom of action curtailed, or have its efforts to achieve its global ambitions frustrated.”

Sounds obvious, but as they acknowledge, this would be a significant shift in policy. Until fairly recently, Washington pursued a so-called engagement strategy that shied away from confrontation with Beijing. For decades, American officials and businessmen posited that trade and investment, as well as the influence of the internet, would lead Chinese communist leaders to join the U.S.-led international order abroad, and to moderation at home.   

With regard to Hong Kong, American leaders believed that the CCP leadership so valued Hong Kong as an international financial center that they would tolerate the rule of law, corporate transparency, freedom of the press and other civil liberties that made it successful and attracted foreign businesses to make the city their base. But this view — that the Party would behave differently toward Hong Kong than it does on the mainland — has been revealed to be dangerously mistaken.

China failed to follow the script the democracies wrote for it. Worse than that, the Party is advancing its own vision for world order – not the Communist revolution that drove it before, but something more insidious. General Secretary Xi Jinping holds out CCP-ruled China as a “new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence” from established universal norms.  Meanwhile the Party is substituting its own anti-norms and advancing them with corrosive effect in foreign capitals and international organizations. 

Hong Kong is central to Party’s plans. Far from being simply a matter of recovering territory formerly held by a colonial power, or of wiping out dissent, Beijing seeks a Potemkin-like international financial center in which a legislature, the press and the judiciary operate according to CCP norms of “patriotism” and “national security.”  

The question now is whether the United States and American businesses will acquiesce to Beijing’s vision. Hong Kong once played a part in the “engagement” strategy, acting as a conduit for the economic development and rising wealth the West imagined would transform China.  With that rationale for trade and investment shattered, foreign businesses in Hong Kong and China, as well as their home governments, must choose whether or not they will continue to fuel China’s military and economic aggression. 

It’s one thing to renew sweeping presidential economic powers, as Biden has done.  It’s another to put them in the service of what the president has called the “contest with autocrats.”  Imposing costs on Beijing will have economic consequences for the democracies and will provoke retaliation from Beijing, as the report’s authors acknowledge. Ultimately, however, these costs will pale in comparison to the cost of not drawing a line against Beijing’s onslaught against freedom in Hong Kong and its broader challenge to the liberal West.

Ellen Bork is the president of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong. The views expressed are the author's own.