23 February 2019
Republican Senator Marco Rubio is expected to become increasingly vocal about China's human rights conditions and Hong Kong's democratic progress in the days ahead. Photo: Reuters
Republican Senator Marco Rubio is expected to become increasingly vocal about China's human rights conditions and Hong Kong's democratic progress in the days ahead. Photo: Reuters

What’s behind Marco Rubio’s ‘sudden’ concern about Hong Kong?

In several of my previous articles, I mentioned that Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida and incumbent chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) has in recent years emerged as Washington’s most vocal critic of the democratic progress in Hong Kong.

As far as the recent Hong Kong chief executive election is concerned, Rubio didn’t pull any punches either.

Just a day after Carrie Lam was elected chief executive, Rubio issued a statement lambasting Beijing for “having apparently interfered in the election in order to manipulate its result”, saying the election was another unmistakable proof that Beijing has been systematically eroding the autonomy of Hong Kong.

He also said that the small-circle CE election was obviously against the commonly shared aspirations for democracy and universal suffrage among the vast majority of Hong Kong people, and such aspirations were clearly demonstrated during the Umbrella Movement in 2014.

Rubio then went on to urge Chief Executive-elect Carrie Lam to answer the wishes of her people and accelerate the democratization process of Hong Kong after she takes office in July in accordance with the democratic spirit and respect for the rule of law .

By comparison, the comments made by his partymate and co-chairman of the CECC Christopher Smith on the recent Hong Kong CE election obviously carried a lot more solid and explicit political message which both Beijing and the HKSAR government cannot afford to ignore.

Smith referred to Carrie Lam as “just another figurehead handpicked by Beijing like her predecessor Leung Chun-ying”.

The fact that Lam was put in charge of the city against the common wishes of its people would only further undermine the autonomy and rule of law in Hong Kong, he said.

In particular, Smith pointed out that whether Hong Kong can continue to fulfill its role successfully as a bridge between China and the West depends largely on the degree to which freedom and civil rights are kept intact.

He warned that the day Hong Kong loses its unique character and becomes just another Chinese city would be the day Washington has to review the “US-Hong Kong Policy Act” and seriously consider whether Hong Kong should continue to enjoy the special treatment promised under the act.

The growing concerns among US congressmen about the democratization process in Hong Kong raise an interesting question: why have mainstream politicians in Washington suddenly become interested in our affairs when most of them have been indifferent over the years?

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the US presidential election last year raised the political awareness and enthusiasm among tens of millions of older and predominantly white voters in the US, thereby leading to a shift in the political agenda in Washington.

According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, older Americans have become increasingly concerned about the human rights record and democratization process in China.

Among Americans aged over 50, as many as 53 percent think China’s poor human rights record is posing an enormous challenge to relations between Washington and Beijing compared with 38 percent among voters aged between 18 and 29.

And that can probably explain why Republican lawmakers such as Rubio have become suddenly keen to play the “Hong Kong card” and weigh in on the city’s affairs because they too must have noticed that there has been a growing concern among older white voters, the traditional support base of the GOP, about the overall human rights conditions and democratic progress in China.

As part of China, Hong Kong has automatically become a cause for concern among these senior voters, too. And it goes without saying that politicians in Washington always care about what their constituents think.

As one of the most promising young politicians in Washington eyeing higher public office, Rubio is expected to become increasingly vocal about China’s human rights conditions and democratic progress in the days ahead, and the political affairs of Hong Kong are apparently among the issues Rubio is determined to milk for all they are worth in order to boost his own popularity.

As such, Rubio’s office on Capitol Hill is likely to be a part of the itinerary of whoever from the Hong Kong pro-democracy camp is visiting Washington in the coming days.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 27

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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