For nearly six months, protesters in Hong Kong have struggled for democratic rights and against the increasing influence of the Chinese government. In response, the US Congress passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act (HKHRDA) by nearly unanimous consent. The act, championed by Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, commits the United States to supporting the protests. It also requires sanctions and other diplomatic actions if Hong Kong—which has its own legal system—is judged to be insufficiently autonomous. (Trump has threatened to veto the bill, claiming it would affect trade talks with China, but it received enough votes in Congress to override that.)
At first glance, the HKHRDA seems laudable. Hong Kong is a haven for free expression and assembly in an increasingly authoritarian China, as well as a crucial hub linking progressive activists on the mainland to organizers in the rest of the world. And most Hong Kongers want to keep it that way: In district council contests on November 24, the territory’s voters elected an overwhelming majority of pro-democracy candidates. The HKHRDA seeks to raise the costs for Beijing if it stamps out those freedoms.
Yet a closer look reveals the bill as the latest expression of a binary that pits China against the West. Political elites on both sides have embraced this narrative, in part for its usefulness in undermining the domestic demands for radical change that each faces. A truly progressive alternative would transform the structure of the conflict, but this bill threatens to further entrench a nationalist framing.
The China-versus-the-West narrative casts the two sides as diametrically opposed. In the Western version, China is defined by its hostility to political freedom, while the West stands for democracy and human rights. The Chinese version presents a mirror image: China is defending the principle of national self-determination and the right to economic development against the West’s incessant plots to preserve global inequality. And in both, Hong Kong’s democrats are aligned with the West, rendering them either heroes or traitors. Neither version is entirely false, and both are fundamentally hostile to progressive change.
On the US side, members of the political establishment have seized on anti-China politics with the hope of co-opting the rising demands for change to aid efforts that will reinforce US global hegemony. As The Washington Post‘s David Ignatius put it, “Americans may be mistrustful of elites, but they also want to believe in something larger than themselves…. [The China challenge] can unite the country and summon disaffected Americans to a test on which their future livelihoods depend, quite literally.”
This anti-China narrative pushes us toward a Cold War mentality, prioritizing geopolitical struggles over efforts to fight economic inequality, structural racism, and climate change—and dooming the international cooperation needed to address those problems. The national security establishment sees great-power competition with China as the top reason to expand the already bloated military budget. Many Democratic leaders are now hoping to outbid the GOP on anti-China measures, moving onto terrain that is tilted in favor of the GOP’s white nationalist base.
The narrative of China versus the West is also central to the Chinese government’s efforts to isolate democracy advocates in Hong Kong from protesters on the mainland. As the Communist Party organ the People’s Daily insists, “US anti-China forces and those forces in Hong Kong…are colluding as the principal promoters of the continuing riots.” The fear of unrest on the mainland is ever present for China’s leaders, and the government regularly directs accusations of foreign influence against all forms of activism, seeking to isolate and discredit political dissidents, labor activists, feminists, and religious minorities.
Mainland Chinese share many of the grievances that drive the Hong Kong protesters (and their American counterparts): inequality, a lack of stable jobs, unaffordable housing, corruption, and unaccountable elites. The inability to recognize this common ground undermines the cause of democracy in Hong Kong. Alone, Hong Kongers may not be able to force Beijing to answer their demands, and increased pressure from the United States is likely to merely harden Chinese leaders’ attitudes. More than anything else, it is solidarity between Hong Kongers and mainlanders that would radically shift the balance of power.
We share the goal of supporting the Hong Kong protesters. But the HKHRDA not only threatens progress in Hong Kong by fortifying divisions between protesters and mainlanders. It also includes measures aimed at turning Hong Kong into a tool of US foreign policy, such as compelling it to help enforce US sanctions against Iran. It is no coincidence that Rubio, the bill’s main sponsor, is one of the most outspoken opponents of China’s economic development. And ironically, figures like Rubio and the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party have a lot in common: Both hope to turn the demands for internal reform into animosity against foreigners, preserving domestic inequalities and creating support for aggressive foreign policy.
The challenge for progressives is to construct an alternative that escapes the binary and redraws the lines of political confrontation. There are abundant grounds for solidarity among the people of mainland China, Hong Kong, and the United States in the form of shared aspirations for a more equal, sustainable society. Our enemies are not other countries; they are the unaccountable elites and nationalist ideologues of all countries.