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Hong Kong protests assert the freedoms China seeks to constrain

protestors create a barricade of luggage carts at the airport
Pro-democracy protestors at Hong Kong's international airport. Photo: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

Intensifying protests in Hong Kong — continuing weeks after the shelving of a controversial extradition law — have fueled a broader struggle over the city's character and future.

Why it matters: Hong Kong remains an important financial gateway from China to the world, although Shanghai and other mainland cities have taken on part of that role. Above all, the central government in Beijing wants to avoid the precedent of a popular political movement successfully challenging President Xi and the authority of the Communist Party.

Background: Pressure in Hong Kong has been building for some time, as China has slowly but steadily chipped away at its special status, calling into question Beijing's commitment to the “one country, two systems” formula that constituted the foundation of the territory's 1997 handover.

Between the lines: Leaders in Beijing worry that a triumphant protest movement in Hong Kong could embolden calls on the mainland for freedom of expression and the rights to assemble and strike. It would raise similar concern about strengthening Taiwanese demands for independence.

  • These risks suggest Chinese authorities will use force if needed, although they may first seek to control the protests by applying economic pressure on Hong Kong, sowing disinformation, arresting protest leaders and threatening military escalation.

What to watch: The U.S. response is still taking shape. President Trump has said that “everyone should be calm and safe” and that what happens is between Hong Kong and China “because Hong Kong is a part of China.”

  • While that may be true, China is obligated to respect Hong Kong's special status until 2047.

The bottom line: What is at issue is China’s willingness to meet its international commitments — in this case, a legally binding treaty with the U.K.

  • Preserving Hong Kong's autonomy and special character will likely require more direct pressure from the U.S. and its allies, including calls for government restraint and dialogue with the people of Hong Kong.
  • The U.S. Congress could also threaten to introduce sanctions in response to any use of armed force to crush dissent or further curbing of Hong Kong's autonomy.

Richard Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "A World in Disarray."