On Tuesday morning, half a world away, my family and I rolled our bags past a pile of signs and leaflets strewn around a dozen people sleeping on a gleaming tile floor. It was all that remained of the protests that had snarled Hong Kong's international airport for three straight days.
A kiosk spit out four boarding passes with assigned seats and luggage checked through to Chicago. An official told us, “You're the lucky ones.” The Hong Kong Airport Authority had closed the airport on Monday. It would close it again later on Tuesday. Thousands were stranded, awaiting rebookings.
As a political science professor who specializes in international politics, I often teach and write on the many crises our complex world creates. This past weekend I found myself in the middle of one.
We spent a wonderful three days in Hong Kong, one of the truly great cities of the world. We also knew we were enjoying the city even as many of its people were fighting for their culture's very survival.
This year's protests mark the most serious crisis since Britain handed the territory over to China in 1997. In the handover agreement, China promised to maintain Hong Kong's way of life for 50 years – not only its robust civil and political liberties but also the guarantees of judicial independence and financial transparency that make it so much easier and safer for foreign businesses to operate there than in mainland China.
China has cheated on that deal for years, pulling the strings on a straitjacket that Hong Kong was never supposed to put on until 2047. This summer's protests were caused by the latest squeeze, the strongest yet: a proposal to effectively allow the extradition of anyone charged by the Hong Kong police to China. Hong Kong's rule of law may be on life support, but China's barely exists.
The extradition law, if passed, would allow China to pluck anyone arrested in the territory out of Hong Kong and into the black hole of the mainland's court and prison system. It would have a chilling effect on Hong Kong's civil society and remaining civil and political liberties.
My heart went out to the protesters. They were passionate and overwhelmingly young, in their twenties and thirties. Their cause was just, their futures were at stake, and their manner toward everyone but the police was unfailingly polite. In the leaflets they handed us on Friday night as we snaked through their enormous protest in the airport's arrivals hall, they apologized to tourists for the inconvenience they were causing and expressed hope we would understand why their need to protest was so vital.
We enjoyed the protesters' beautiful, vibrant city even as they battled police tear gas and truncheons elsewhere in the territory. Only some protesters had begun to call for a tourist boycott, and most only asked that we take their message home with us.
Yet the crisis is escalating, and the Hong Kong Free Press reported on Tuesday that some protesters had for the first time begun blocking departing passengers from their flights.
If they continue to do this, they risk some of the international goodwill they have been so savvy and assiduous in cultivating.
Tactical choices such as these are getting harder for the protest movement because the dangers that Hong Kongers face are becoming more acute.
The territory's government, backed by Beijing, shows no signs of backing down.
For Americans, accustomed to supporting freedoms at home and abroad, the choice is clear: pressure the Hong Kong government, and ultimately China, to withdraw – not just temporarily suspend – the extradition bill.
A bipartisan bill currently in Congress offers the clearest way for Americans to exert the needed pressure. The proposed Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 would require the U.S. government to decide annually whether Hong Kong enjoys enough autonomy within China to continue to receive the special trade and financial preferences we currently give it.
Congress and the president should act now to make it law. The embattled people of Hong Kong deserve nothing less.
James Toole is an associate professor of political science at Purdue University Fort Wayne.