U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley must feel a certain pleasure in knowing that his public statements on the Hong Kong protests are striking a nerve.
The Missouri Republican drew a rebuke from Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, which is to say his words got the attention of the mainland’s leadership. Beijing, not Lam, pulls the strings in Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous political system.
For some time now, Hawley hasn’t shied from criticism of China on issues ranging from the influence of cultural outreach on U.S. campuses to the theft of American technology and intellectual property. The latest salvo came after the senator arrived in Hong Kong to observe anti-government protests that have raged for more than four months.
Just two weeks after a protester was shot and demonstrators scuffled with police, Hawley arrived in the city and saw thousands of people on the streets and a heavy police presence. The senator said something that sounds very reasonable to American ears: “Hong Kong is in danger of sliding into a police state.”
This set off conniptions from a regime that seems to take issue with any outside criticism, whether it comes from the youngest U.S. senator or an NBA owner. Lam called Hawley’s comments irresponsible and unfounded. Hawley, to his credit, refused to back down and instead suggested that she resign.
This back-and-forth comes at a sensitive time in U.S.-China relations. The outlook for a trade deal is deteriorating, and the U.S. House showed rare bipartisanship in passing a bill that expresses support for the protesters and threatens to revoke Hong Kong’s special trading status. Loss of this trading privilege, which is based on Hong Kong’s autonomy, might sting more than any political tweet.
But the senator’s verbal criticism matters because it signals that the world is watching what happens in Hong Kong. This, plus the knowledge that every protester seems to have a mobile phone with a camera, helps keep China’s army from staging a Tienanmen-style crackdown. The army, more than the city’s police, is what the Hong Kong demonstrators really fear.
Trade and the easing of tensions are important factors to consider in a diplomatic sense, but Hawley is not a diplomat. As an elected official, he seems to understand that moral outrage trumps commercial dealings when the stakes are high enough. The was the case in Poland in 1981, South Africa during the Apartheid era and in Hong Kong since the protests started this summer.
The senator has emerged as a strong voice for democracy. He shouldn’t be shy about making his views known to China’s leadership, and to the leader of the United States while he’s at it.