As the new coronavirus (or "Chinese Virus" according to you know who) is grabbing the headlines around the world, it is understandable that outsiders are starting to forget the protests that have rocked Hong Kong since last year. Yes, large scale protests with thousands of participants that can fill streets after streets are no longer, but this is more to do with people adopting social distancing under the epidemic, not that the discontent in Hong Kongers is dying down. In fact sporadic gatherings still occur, which are all brutally suppressed by the police.
One might ask, why am I writing about this topic at this particular timing. Actually, something that could prove pivotal to the situation is going on behind the scenes. The US government is currently preparing a report on the human rights' condition in Hong Kong, and it is due to be submitted to Congress very soon. This report might contain recommendations on whether sanctions on Hong Kong officials who played a part in abusing human rights are needed. It will be a historical first if the US is to adopt sanctions over Hong Kong.
Let's look back at the situation in Hong Kong before I continue discussing the sanctions. Hong Kong has thrived over the years being a bridge between Communist China and the outside world. Foreigners see Hong Kong as a base to do business with China, making use of its British-style legal system and free flow of money and information, while China also benefits from the trade. This is thanks to the "One Country Two Systems" formula that allows Hong Kong to be governed autonomously despite being a part of China. As the leader of the free world and a large trading partner, the US is also an important stakeholder in Hong Kong's position.
But the balance is tilting as China takes an increasingly authoritarian turn in recent years, the violent suppression of protests, arbitrary arrests, using legal loopholes to eject opposition lawmakers from the legislature, kicking out foreign journalists critical of the government, and going after opposition media (see the arrest of Jimmy Lai of Appledaily, and the kidnapping of the the Causeway Bay Bookstore's owners). The lost of freedom and the rule of law will have a spillover effect on foreign businesses. Nepotism and corruption are on the rise. Companies that do business with China are being bullied into doing whatever it wants. China is also using Hong Kong businessmen as coverups to its corrupt dealings in foreign countries and circumventing restrictions in international treaties (e.g. the case of Patrick Ho Chi-ping). Foreigners who think that freedom and democracy in Hong Kong can be overlooked are naive at best. Hong Kong is no longer a level playing field for doing business.
But it's more than just about doing business. It may sound grandstanding, but keeping Hong Kong free is beneficial to the world. Take the new coronavirus. China had tried to cover up the epidemic, and Hong Kong had played a big role in exposing that lie. The Hong Kong media first reported on rumours about a suspicious spike in pneumonia cases in the city, in which all patients had visited Wuhan recently. Opposition politicians who in general do not trust China urges more information on the cases. Medical experts from local universities were sent to Wuhan to investigate, and on returning they told the media the situation is indeed worrying. A few days later, China admitted the disease is getting out of control and declared a lockdown of Wuhan. This case shows how keeping Hong Kong as the last free place in China can be beneficial to the world; information that the Communists would want to block might be passed on to the outside world through Hong Kong, which is also exactly the reason for China wanting to tighten its grip here.
There will be wider repercussions to the whole world as well. China is waging an ideological war on the free world, and Hong Kong is fast becoming the frontline battleground in this war. We see how China is claiming its authoritarian rule is superior to democracy, spreading Orwellian fake news throughout this new coronavirus outbreak, and accusing anyone critical of China as racist (like NBA). If the US does not act now, China will think it is being given a freehand to do whatever it wants in Hong Kong, and the next domino that falls might be Taiwan, East and South China Sea, and beyond. China is fueling jingoism among its people, whether foreign reactions will escalate that or pour cold water on them no one can tell, but the West's appeasement policy in the past has no doubt only fed Beijing's ambitions, and failed to encourage reforms in China which the West had hoped for.
Another point to consider is, the sanctions being mulled are very mild in nature; they only target a few individuals and not the whole of Hong Kong, not to mention China. Given the deteriorating socioeconomic environment, China is unlikely to retaliate strongly over such mild measures. Yet despite their mildness, these measure may be suffice to signal the US' commitment and remind Beijing and its cronies in Hong Kong that Uncle Sam is watching you.
Lastly, Hong Kongers' struggle for freedom and democracy is becoming a war of attrition. Backed by Beijing, the government is not making any concessions, and the people do not want to back down, since freedom and democracy are promised to them by China before the handover and are enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. The fight is protracting and Hong Kongers badly need a boost in their morale, which a small gesture by the US will do. And to take a long term view, to successfully check China's ambitions, the whole Western world needs to unite and act. The US, as the beacon of the free world, should take the lead. It's also the moral thing to do.