Beijing is using Hong Kong to spread its anti-democratic agenda. The U.S. must act

Learn more about Ellen Bork.
Ellen Bork
George W. Bush Institute

In May, the United Kingdom charged three men linked to the official Hong Kong trade office in London with gathering intelligence and other hostile activity against the Hong Kong diaspora. The men’s targets allegedly included a former Hong Kong pro-democracy legislator, a free trade union leader, and an organizer of Hong Kong’s massive 2019 protests whom Hong Kong’s Beijing-appointed chief executive has vowed to pursue “to the ends of the earth.”

Of course, the men charged were acting ultimately on behalf of China. The Hong Kong foreign intelligence agency cited by UK authorities is the product of the National Security Law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in 2020 which definitively ended the autonomy the city was supposed to enjoy under Chinese communist rule.

Beijing’s ambitious anti-democracy agenda is well known, but these arrests, and the operations they upended, are noteworthy for revealing how China is harnessing Hong Kong to advance its transnational repression and assault on liberal democracy around the world.

The NSL brought the Chinese Communist Party’s legal and political norms to the city. The CCP’s concept of national security is intended to maintain its supremacy, not defend it from external threats. It is antithetical to individual rights. In Beijing’s view, according to Daniel Tobin, of the Center for International and Strategic Studies, “dissent … is not political participation but state subversion.” As a result, the NSL established a new security bureaucracy, including a separate police force and an intelligence service under the supervision of mainland Chinese officials and staffed in part by mainland personnel.

In Hong Kong, 237 Hong Kongers have been arrested on national security charges. Fourteen democracy activists were convicted of subversion on May 30 by specially designated national security judges. Thirty-one previously pled guilty in the same case. Jimmy Lai, the founder and publisher of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, is on trial for foreign collusion and other charges. His newspaper was forced to shut down in 2021 after the government used the NSL to freeze its assets without due process.

According to the Hong Kong Democracy Council, the total number of political prisoners in the city — including arrests under other laws — comes to 1,854.

With Hong Kong under tight control, Beijing has turned to using the city and its institutions to advance its anti-democratic agenda abroad, including the UK. Both the NSL and additional subversion legislation mandated by Beijing and adopted by the Hong Kong legislature in March apply to offenses against Hong Kong’s national security anywhere.

China’s practice of transnational repression is the most brazen in the world. Its abuses include surveillance, harassment, hacking, and forced repatriations against its perceived critics, including Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Chinese. Even those holding citizenship in other countries are not safe.

To reach its targets, Beijing frequently relies on co-opting foreign governments or officials. Notably, two of the men charged with foreign interference by the UK are UK law enforcement officers. According to the summary of the prosecution’s case, both men had access to secure UK government computers. The third defendant is a former Hong Kong police officer currently employed by the official Hong Kong trade office in London.

In addition to intelligence operations like the ones exposed in the UK, Beijing is using Hong Kong to undermine universal norms in international fora. Hong Kong’s once respected civil servants at the U.N. “have morphed from restrained professionals to wolf warrior-style delegates . . . [who] actively promote the [People’s Republic of China]’s agenda and copy its tactics, employing manipulative language with regard to human rights and attacking anyone who challenges their narrative, be they NGOs or U.N. human rights experts,” wrote Anouk Wear in ChinaFile.

America based its longstanding policy toward Hong Kong on the hope that Beijing would treat Hong Kong’s 7.2 million people differently than it does the rest of China’s 1.4 billion citizens. In particular, U.S. policymakers assumed that the party would recognize the benefits it reaped from the rule of law, civil service, and freedom of information that made the city a successful international financial center.

That may have been true while China needed Western investment to amass economic and military power. Now that it has, the party is pursuing ideological – or discourse power – to advance its own anti-democratic norms.

The CCP’s use of Hong Kong in that agenda is a disturbing and new, if not unexpected development. The U.S. needs to impose greater consequences on Beijing not only for the destruction of Hong Kong but also for its ongoing campaign against the U.S.-led liberal democratic order.

Pressed to do more in response to China’s repression in Hong Kong, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken agreed on May 22 to consider imposing sanctions on Hong Kong judges and prosecutors involved in the national security crackdown.

However, Washington has already sanctioned mainland and Hong Kong officials without any lessening of repression there. These officials mock the U.S. visa and financial sanctions. Sanctions on additional senior Chinese officials are unlikely to be more successful.

Closing the Hong Kong trade offices in Washington, New York, and San Francisco is overdue, as the U.S. has already determined that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous. The alleged involvement of a trade office employee in transnational repression in the UK only makes closing the U.S. offices more urgent.

An effective response to China’s anti-democratic agenda includes going beyond law enforcement efforts like the arrests in the UK.

The Biden administration should also warn Americans that China is using Hong Kong as a Potemkin showcase to model CCP alternative norms and discourage prominent Americans, including business executives, governors, and university presidents, from legitimizing them through visits to the city and in meetings with Hong Kong officials.

And above all, the Biden administration should also press for the release of Hong Kong political prisoners by name in every high level meeting with Chinese officials.