Police officers warn supporters of 47 pro-democracy activists they are violating the national security law outside the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts on March 4. Photo: Felix Wong
Hanscom Smith
Hanscom Smith

Hong Kong democracy: why letting Hong Kong be itself offers best hope for future

  • The best solution to Hong Kong’s challenges is the most obvious – trust the city to work according to the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law
  • Such measures should not be controversial because they reflect institutions, practices and proposals that have been on the table since 1997

On my first visit to Hong Kong in the 1990s, I was struck by the city’s vitality, pluralism and openness. From my backpacker hotel, I experienced a dynamic metropolis fuelled by hard work and the free flow of ideas. Hong Kong felt upbeat and alive, a confident city ready to face anything.

As an American, I felt at home in Hong Kong. Our common histories of openness and diversity are the basis for a strong relationship for more than 175 years. Hong Kong is home to 85,000 Americans and almost 1,300 US companies. 

Shared values and deep people-to-people ties created a firm foundation for friendship. Hong Kong became one of the world’s most developed places precisely because it embraced free exchange, from goods and money to ideas and innovation.

Hong Kong’s success was fundamentally based on the “ one country, two systems” framework, including the high degree of autonomy promised to Hong Kong in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the freedoms enshrined in the city’s Basic Law. For many years, our annual Hong Kong Policy Act reports stated that Beijing generally lived up to its commitment to allow Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy.
Sadly, our latest report states the obvious. Beijing continues to dismantle Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, inconsistent with the China’s obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration and Hong Kong’s Basic Law.
Today, it is harder to recognise the Hong Kong that thrived for so long. The 2019 protest movement revealed widespread dissatisfaction with the government’s ability to address the people’s concerns. Unfortunately, rather than defusing tensions through existing institutions, the authorities took a different approach.
Public concerns were downplayed or dismissed, and many with dissenting views have been arrested or silenced. “ Foreign forces” were invoked in a revival of old propaganda tropes as authorities tried to shift blame to outside scapegoats.
Invoking conspiracy theories lets them avoid accountability and ignore the views of the millions of Hong Kong residents who protested peacefully and later voted overwhelmingly to support opposition candidates during the 2019 District Council elections. Tagging peaceful protesters as “rioters” over the acts of a violent fringe is another way for authorities to evade dialogue and compromise.
The government’s inability or unwillingness to resolve public concerns was the cause of the 2019 protests. Now, it says the solution is curtailing pluralism and suppressing dissent. Hong Kong – once a bastion of disparate voices, lively debate and the rule of law – is now a city where people are arrested and languish in detention for months before trial for taking part in peaceful demonstrations or primary elections and face years of imprisonment under a national security law developed, imposed and enforced by organs accountable only to Beijing.
In March, the National People’s Congress squelched democratic representation, choosing instead to subject all candidates for office to a litmus test for ill-defined “patriotism” while packing the Legislative Council and the Election Committee, the body that selects the chief executive, with Beijing’s hand-picked representatives to ensure only Beijing-approved views are heard. These measures quash meaningful pluralism and lead to governance that is even less responsive to the concerns of Hongkongers.
Democracy isn’t always easy or perfect, but no other system comparably supports rights and freedoms while delivering prosperity and stability. “Patriotism” cannot be legislated from above. Responsibility cannot be evaded by invoking outside bogeymen. Fear of the public is never a basis for successful governance.
The best solution to Hong Kong’s challenges is the most obvious – trust the city to work according to the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. That means ensuring Legco and the Election Committee represent all Hongkongers, not just a small group hand-picked by Beijing.

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It means letting Hong Kong’s own institutions develop legislation that fosters security, prosperity and stability and replaces the current national security law, which is being used for repression. It means continuing progress towards universal suffrage, upholding freedom of speech and association, ending pressure on the judiciary and holding free and fair Legco elections.

These measures should not be controversial because they reflect institutions, practices and proposals on the table since 1997. Imagine if the authorities had the confidence and vision to earn public esteem rather than try to mandate it. Imagine Hong Kong as a beacon of pluralism and prosperity, both part of China and uniquely open to the world.

In other words, imagine how bright the future would look if the city was simply allowed to be itself. That’s the Hong Kong I’ve seen before and hope to see again. Let Hong Kong be Hong Kong.

Hanscom Smith is the US consul general for Hong Kong and Macau