Chinese President Xi Jinping faces an ominous choice. He can abide by China's "one country, two systems" treaty obligation, made in 1997, that gives Hong Kong 50 years of crucial and autonomous rights, including free speech and peaceful assembly.
Or Xi can crush the growing dissent among Hong Kong's freedom-loving people and send in thousands of military troops amassed outside the city, reminding the world of the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989 and reinforcing the perception that, for all of its economic progress, China remains just another dictatorship.
The role for America, which fostered for the world the sanctity of individual rights, is to join with the world's other leading democracies to prod Xi toward the light — and away from dark repression.
For U.S. leaders, this should be instinctive, especially given the poignancy of Hong Kong demonstrators waving American flags and singing the U.S. national anthem. In fact, congressional leaders have expressed strong bipartisan support for Hong Kong.
From the White House, the signals have been more mixed. Official response has either been tardy — expressions of concern by an unnamed State Department spokeswoman Wednesday — or confusing and contradictory.
'One country, two systems'
President Donald Trump has yet to advocate for Hong Kong freedoms, though he called for "a happy and enlightened ending" and suggested that progress on trade talks would be contingent on Xi working "humanely with Hong Kong first."
It's unclear what that means. Or whether Trump understands Hong Kong's special status. He told reporters earlier this month that the demonstrations were China's problem, because "Hong Kong is a part of China."
Well, it is and it isn't.
When Britain transferred Hong Kong to China in 1997, Beijing agreed to an autonomous status for the city through 2047 — the "one country, two systems" concept. Hong Kong residents would enjoy rights and freedoms denied to mainland citizens.
The city is a leading world financial center with special U.S. trade status that today leaves it exempt from Trump's tariffs on China. Last year, America had a goods and services trade surplus of $33.8 billion with Hong Kong. It's home to 85,000 U.S. citizens and operations for more than 1,400 U.S. businesses.
Extradition bill triggered protests
Beijing has worked since then to chip away at Hong Kong's autonomy. Most recently, city legislation was introduced that would allow residents accused of crime to be extradited to the mainland's brutal courts. This is what triggered demonstrations in early June. The bill was suspended, although not entirely withdrawn, and protests have continued. An astonishing quarter of Hong Kong's population, or up to 2 million people, marched peacefully on June 16, organizers said.
With much at stake, much leverage exists for Washington and like-minded allies to exert pressure.
They could urge both sides to exercise restraint — pro-government thugs and Hong Kong police who have violently suppressed dissent, as well as overzealous protesters who have likewise beaten up suspected government spies, stormed government offices and disrupted air travel.
There is no way for the United States or other nations to block a bloody, Beijing-backed crackdown. But publicly or privately, they could make Xi aware of the price he could pay, including economic sanctions, revocation of Hong Kong's special trade status, and bans on exports to China of crime control equipment like tear gas.
First and foremost, the leading democracies need to remind the world that they stand for freedom, and that freedom is at risk in Hong Kong.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: As China faces fate on Hong Kong's freedom, America faces a choice