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A rally calling for the U.S. Congress to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in the Central district of Hong Kong, Oct. 14, 2019.LAM YIK FEI/The New York Times News Service

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

Passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act by both houses of the American Congress is a humiliating blow for China and, at the same time, a triumph for the Hong Kong protesters and their message to their global audience. The message is simple: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”

The message had evidently reached the ears of United States President Donald Trump. “We have to stand with Hong Kong,” Mr. Trump told Fox News on Friday, “but I’m also standing with President Xi. I stand with freedom … but we’re also in the process of making one of the largest trade deals.”

Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart, said at more or less the same time in Beijing that China wanted to work out a “phase one” trade pact but was not afraid of a trade war.

The Senate and House votes reflect the success of the Hong Kong protesters in wooing American support for their cause. They appealed to the United States by waving the American flag at demonstrations, singing The Star-Spangled Banner and openly calling for passage of the bill, which is meant to monitor any decrease in Hong Kong’s autonomy.

The State Department will report to Congress each year if Hong Kong is autonomous enough to merit separate treatment of its trade status. Reporting was done under the 1992 U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act as well, although not every year.

Since the Chinese Communist Party at its recently concluded fourth plenum decided to change the process for appointing the Chief Executive and key officials in Hong Kong and to reform the way the National People’s Congress Standing Committee interprets the Basic Law, it is natural to want to see how such changes will affect the “high degree of autonomy” originally promised to Hong Kong.

China made statements about its Hong Kong policies in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that would remain unchanged for 50 years but now doesn’t like to be reminded of them.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Nov. 18 that China must honour its promises of freedoms and liberties to the Hong Kong people, as stated in the Joint Declaration. When asked to comment, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that Britain had fulfilled all its rights and obligations but, strangely, said nothing about China’s obligations, only that “Hong Kong affairs are purely China’s internal affairs.”

Given China’s clear reluctance to even acknowledge that it made certain promises to the people of Hong Kong and to the international community 35 years ago, it is certainly understandable that other countries, which had accepted China’s pledges regarding the “one country, two systems” concept then, should now insist that they want to know that these promises are being kept.

This is especially so since China is now saying that the “one country, two systems” national governance principle needs to “be constantly improved in practice.”

The protesters’ gravitation toward the United States, and the West in general, corresponded with their rejection of China and the Communist Party and reflected the dismal failure of China to win the support, if not the allegiance, of Chinese nationals born on Chinese soil who have lived their whole life on Chinese territory.

China is spending billions of dollars to improve its global image, developing international media networks and establishing Chinese language and cultural centres.

In Hong Kong, however, China doesn’t even bother with the velvet glove; it goes straight to the steel fist.

China talks about its red lines and warns against crossing them. The emphasis is on threats, warnings and control. Beijing should know that repression is not the way to win hearts and minds. Its hardline strategy has clearly backfired.

Beijing should think of the seven million people in Hong Kong not as its subjects but as intelligent human beings who need to be won over through soft power. It should try to enhance its own attractiveness.

One way, certainly, is to give Hong Kong people what they want, which is greater freedom, including the right to choose their own leaders. The extradition protests of the past six months should have taught Beijing that it is vital to have a leadership in Hong Kong that is trusted by its people rather than one handpicked for its obedience to Beijing.

Hong Kong is meant to be different from the mainland, a capitalistic island in a socialist sea. Beijing should throw away the stick and work on sweetening the carrots.

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