Supporters of Radical localist group Youngspiration's candidate Baggio Leung shout slogans near a polling station for the legislative council election, Sept. 4, 2016.
Supporters of Radical localist group Youngspiration's candidate Baggio Leung shout slogans near a polling station for the legislative council election, Sept. 4, 2016.

WASHINGTON - A Hong Kong election that saw unprecedented wins by “localist” activists seeking self-determination for the autonomous Chinese territory is posing a dilemma for the United States.

Washington often has promoted democratic movements around the world, but it also has recognized Hong Kong as a special administrative region of China since Britain returned it to Chinese rule in 1997.

The U.S. State Department reacted cautiously to the first-time victories of six localists in Hong Kong’s September 4 election for its 70-seat Legislative Council, or Legco. The localists will join two other radicals and 22 moderates as part of a 30-strong “opposition” bloc of lawmakers advocating greater democracy for Hong Kong.

Obama administration responds

In a statement to VOA, the State Department’s East Asia and Pacific Bureau spokesperson, Anna Richey-Allen, welcomed Hong Kong’s record voter turnout as an “affirmation of the commitment of (its) people to participate in the democratic process.”

But Richey-Allen made no specific mention of the newly-elected localists. Instead, she said the Obama administration “looks forward to working with all elected leaders to build strong relations between the United States and Hong Kong and achieve mutually beneficial goals.” 

Could one of those goals be Hong Kong self-determination, a desire of the localists who complain that Hong Kong's identity is being eroded by Beijing and by a growing influx of mainland Chinese? The localists want changes to Hong Kong’s constitution or Basic Law to allow citizens to decide whether or not they want independence from Beijing after the territory’s 50-year period of autonomy ends in 2047.

The Chinese government has criticized Hong Kong independence advocates as separatists and belittled them as a fringe minority. When China’s number-three ranking leader Zhang Dejiang visited the territory in May, he warned that Hong Kong would “undoubtedly rot” if it gave up its “one country, two systems” formula of autonomy, enshrined in the Basic Law.

Supporters of visiting Zhang Dejiang, the chairman
FILE - Supporters of visiting Zhang Dejiang, the chairman of China's National People's Congress, hold placards which read "Need livelihood, need stability", in Hong Kong on May 18, 2016.

Empathizing with localism

Richard Bush, a China analyst at the Brookings Institution, sees one scenario in which the United States could endorse the localists’ vision.

"If, somehow, Beijing in the next 30 years were to decide that the localists are right, and that Hong Kong people should at some point before 2047 be allowed to have an exercise of self-determination, and if they decided to set up a separate country, then the United States is not going to object to that,” Bush told VOA’s China 360 podcast. But he said Washington “accepted as a reality, and still accepts as a reality, that Hong Kong is part of China.”

U.S. Congressman Chris Smith, who chairs the Hong Kong Caucus in the House of Representatives, expressed sympathy for the localists in a statement emailed to VOA.

Smith said he was concerned about death threats aimed at incoming localist lawmaker Eddie Chu, and about what he called the Hong Kong government’s “seemingly arbitrary disqualification” of other localists who sought to stand in the election. Electoral authorities disqualified several localists earlier this year for refusing to sign newly-introduced documents stating that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China.

Smith said the Legco election was “an important symbol of Hong Kong's vitality, freedoms, and fight to remain an autonomous and prosperous bridge between China and the West.” He also pledged to continue congressional monitoring of Hong Kong’s democratic progress, saying its “high level of autonomy and guaranteed freedoms are a clear U.S. interest.”

U.S. Republican Representative Chris Smith of New
FILE - U.S. Republican Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey speaks to VOA after a U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China hearing in Washington, April 30, 2015. (M. Lipin/VOA)

Risking a backlash

It is not yet clear when U.S. lawmakers or officials will meet or speak with Hong Kong’s victorious localists. But expressing strong U.S. support for the localists’ views would be a mistake, according to Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, part of the U.S. government-run Wilson Center research institute.  

“These are Chinese people ultimately under the leadership of the Communist Party whether we like it or not.” said Daly, also speaking to VOA China 360. “The United States very much wants Hong Kong to retain its many civic freedoms, but we also want those things in general for all Chinese people. It would be extremely destabilizing and destructive not only to U.S.-China relations but also to the cause of greater Hong Kong autonomy for the United States to weigh in with a heavy hand as though it could influence Beijing or had a direct interest in the outcome."   

Brookings senior fellow Bush said he believes the United States should make a special effort to advocate for Hong Kong people’s democratic aspirations. 

“Hong Kong is at a different point in its political and social development (compared with mainland China) and that allows a different policy position,” Bush said. “China, in the Basic Law, granted Hong Kong people rights that are present in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and it granted the rule of law through an independent judiciary. All of those are precious assets and the United States should oppose any backsliding from what Hong Kong already has.”

Bush also said Washington should press Beijing, Hong Kong’s government and its political parties to improve the existing political system under the Basic Law. “Experimenting with elections in Hong Kong and getting the bugs out of the system could be very useful in preparing (mainland) China for the day, which I hope will come, where it picks more leaders by genuine competitive elections," he said.    

State Department Correspondent Nike Ching contributed to this report.