If China’s tightening grip on its closing society has an eerie familiarity, it should. The Chinese Communist Party’s wholesale disregard for its citizens’ fundamental freedoms has long invited comparisons to rule in the former Soviet Union. The recently imposed National Security Law and Hong Kongers’ reactions bear ugly witness to the validity of that assessment. In response, Congress should look back to Cold War legislation that clearly demonstrates that America stands with the victims of totalitarianism.
Last month, the Chinese Coast Guard intercepted and stopped a speed boat with 12 people on board – including several democracy activists – attempting to flee Hong Kong. Their reported destination was Taiwan, where they intended to seek political asylum. Similar stories of political persecution and arrests in Hong Kong have multiplied this year, especially in conjunction with the National Security Law. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo correctly observed that its effect is to make Hong Kong, “Just another Communist-run city where people will be subject to the party elites’ whims.”
When British rule in Hong Kong ended in 1997 and the territory was handed over to China, it did so with Beijing’s explicit agreement that the city would for 50 years keep a locally-elected legislature and greater freedoms than were afforded other parts of China. Since then, Beijing has systematically undermined those promises, criminalizing free speech and assembly with harsh penalties for those residents living in defiance of Chinese Communist Party dogma.
Repressive steps by Beijing coupled with heated rhetoric from Washington has led to talk of a cold war redux. It remains to be seen whether the term renewed is apt; nonetheless, the parallels between China’s subjugation of Hong Kong and Soviet domination of Eastern Europe are clear.
Decades ago, the Baltic Sea was both a barrier and pathway to freedom. Today, the waters of the South China Sea between Hong Kong and Taiwan pose a similar passage. During the Cold War, Soviet and Warsaw Pact authorities turned states into penitentiaries to keep citizens from emigrating abroad. A militarized border between East and West in Europe stretched for hundreds of miles of Baltic Coast. An estimated 5,000 people attempted to reach the West over the Baltic Sea; many drowned or were arrested in their attempts. Only some 800 people are known to have safely made the maritime passage.
As the Chinese Communist Party continues to dismantle the remnants of Hong Kong’s democratic liberties, its residents will begin to seek freedom abroad over an ever-intrusive surveillance state. Beijing, like the past Soviet leaders, is embarrassed by the departure of their citizens and fearful of the truths they can bear witness to. Chinese leaders today are reacting just as their Cold War counterparts did, clamping down on borders, equating the desire to leave with criminality, suffocating Chinese individuals holding their government to account from afar.
In the 1970s, in the face of Soviet limits on emigration from the USSR, the U.S. Congress adopted what became known as the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the U.S. Trade Act of 1974. That legislation linked open emigration policies of then-communist countries to their trade and economic relations with the United States. That provision successfully pressured the Kremlin to ease restrictions on peoples, particularly for Soviet Jews wishing to reach Israel, the United States and other points abroad. As a consequence, the U.S. was able to impose real economic, and hence political, costs on the Soviet government for its human rights abuses while also laying out a pathway for Soviet and East Bloc citizens to eventually find refuge abroad.
China had been subject to Jackson-Vanik requirements until Congress removed them in 2002, during headier days of optimism for a freer, more responsible and trustworthy China. Nearly two decades later, systemic PRC human rights abuses grievously perpetuated against the Uyghurs, Tibetans, religious minorities and now all of Hong Kong expose the Chinese Communist Party for the brutal, totalitarian force that it is.
Authoritarian regimes thrive on their people’s false perception that the world is deaf to their sufferings. Now is the time for the U.S. and its allies to stand together with the imposition of a new Jackson-Vanik amendment specifically updated for today’s China. The transatlantic community must show the freedom-loving peoples of China that they are not alone.
Scott Cullinane is the executive director of the US-Europe Alliance. Richard Kraemer is the president of the board of the US-Europe Alliance and a fellow at the European Values Center for Security Policy.