Do No Harm in Hong Kong

What the United States Can—and Can’t—Do to Help Preserve the City’s Autonomy

A detained protester in Hong Kong, December 2019 Tyrone Siu / Reuters

In the months after large-scale protests first broke out in Hong Kong last June, U.S. policy circles remained relatively quiet. Yet as demonstrations turned violent and rumors of a Beijing-directed crackdown spread, concern in Washington grew. Last week, President Donald Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which arrived at his desk with veto-proof backing from both houses of Congress. The legislation gives the U.S. government a stronger mandate to adjust its legal stance toward Hong Kong, as well as offering renewed sanctions authorities and a clearer expression of where the United States stands on the city’s future.

Yet the biggest questions for U.S. policy still lie ahead. At issue today in Hong Kong is not simply when and how the protests end. More consequential is whether Hong Kong’s uniquely autonomous status within China, as defined by the “one country, two systems” paradigm, can survive the current crisis. The most important focus for U.S. policymakers should be to do what they can to reinforce that paradigm, while avoiding steps that would undermine it.

The status quo in Hong Kong, with its high degree of autonomy, extensive personal freedoms, and strong rule of law, generates enormous benefits not just for the people of Hong Kong but also for the United States and China. Above all else, Washington must remember what it can, and cannot, do to ensure that this status quo continues. Done right, U.S. policy can help keep the Hong Kong dream alive. But there is a real risk that the United States could inadvertently make matters worse.


Ever since its handover from the United Kingdom to China in 1997, Hong Kong has enjoyed special status within China. “One country, two systems” is the shorthand used to describe that status—Hong Kong’s mostly separate system of laws and governance and generally Westernized business practices, which persist (and thrive) despite overall Chinese sovereignty. This status, promised in a 1984 treaty between China and

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