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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote a blistering op-ed calling out China for various human rights violations and a crackdown on Hong Kong.
He said the US could revisit the 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act, which gave the city special access to the US market and poured billions into Beijing's pockets. The act allows the US to trade with Hong Kong on better, more favorable terms than it affords the Chinese mainland.
Doing this would punish China, but also regular Hong Kongers as the island could lose its status as a global financial hub.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote a blistering op-ed calling for the world to stand up to and confront China over a variety of human rights concerns and a violent response to 11 weeks of largely peaceful protests in semi-autonomous Hong Kong.
"Sooner or later, the rest of the world will have to do what the protesters are doing — confront Beijing," McConnell wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
In the article, McConnell also called for a punishment that could demolish Hong Kong's status as a global financial hub and a cash cow for Beijing, but experts call it a dangerous gambit.
Hong Kong on fire
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When the British returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, it did so with an internationally recognized treaty wherein China promised to respect Hong Kong's system of government, which allows greater freedoms than the mainland's strict communist rule.
But China has steadily eroded the freedoms people in Hong Kong enjoy, partially due to a creeping takeover of its government, and partly due to techno-authoritarianism enabling an unparalleled surveillance state. The recent spate of protests in Hong Kong kicked off when the local government proposed a bill that would allow China to deport Hong Kongers to the mainland for trials.
Hong Kongers responded to the bill with perhaps the largest protests in human history, and carried them out in a notably peaceful and orderly way for weeks, despite documented police brutality and brutal beatings from mainland-linked gangs.
McConnell described China's often violent response to Hong Kong as "authoritarian rulers seeking to repress the innate human desire for freedom, self-expression and self-government" on par with historical massacres of freedom-seekers in the former Soviet Union and under former Chinese leader Chairman Mao Tse-tung.
McConnell goes on to shred China's brutal oppression of ethnic and religious minorities, including in Tibet and Xinjiang, where more than 1 million Chinese citizens have been detained, re-educated in party propaganda, and often made to renounce their religion.
The US could hurt China over Hong Kong
Perhaps most significantly, McConnell threatened a move that would destroy Hong Kong's special appeal to global finance by revisiting the 1992 Hong Kong Policy act.
The act allows the US to trade with Hong Kong on better, more favorable terms than it affords the Chinese mainland.
"This special access to the U.S. and other nations helped drive the investment and modernization that have enriched Hong Kong, and Beijing by extension," wrote McConnell. "Beijing must know the Senate will reconsider that special relationship, among other steps, if Hong Kong's autonomy is eroded."
He then went on to say that he had instructed various Senate committees to examine Beijing's actions in Hong Kong and increase funding for pro-Democracy movements in Asia.
"Revoking the 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act is a double-edged sword and one that should be wielded only very, very cautiously," Mike Fuchs, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a progressive DC think tank, told Business Insider.
Ending the policy "would hurt Beijing by closing off a backdoor through Hong Kong to receive preferred economic treatment because of the status that it has," said Fuchs. For reference, the US did $67.3 billion worth of business with Hong Kong in 2018.
Matthew Henderson, the director of the Asia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society, told Business Insider that the 1992 act allows the US to revisit the policy if China gets too involved in Hong Kong policy.
"From a Western perspective, it makes sense to remind Beijing that loss of benefits conferred under the Act would harm Hong Kong as a global financial and commercial centre — and also harm China's prosperity, to which Hong Kong still makes a very big contribution," Henderson said. "So Beijing would be wise not to erode Hong Kong's autonomy to the point that the Act's conditions cease to apply."
But both Henderson an Fuchs agreed, if the US does revoke the 1992 act, Hong Kongers will feel the effects first and foremost.