• Pan-democrats could persuade protesters to claim the US-sponsored act as a moral victory, vent their steam through the district council elections and win bigger support to revisit universal suffrage in the Legislative Council
A protester at Polytechnic University in Hong Kong on November 16 under the message: “Liberty or Death”. A third option might be to effect change from within, starting with the district council elections. Photo: Reuters

The United States' Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which was just passed by the Senate, is remarkable as much for its attempt to champion a city far across the Pacific as for its unprecedented bipartisanship. Ironically, Hong Kong " with its sharply polarised society " has wrought political unity in a country riven by righteous rage.

The act may have a limited positive effect on Hong Kong's fortunes but will certainly drive a bigger wedge between Washington and Beijing in their damaging trade war. The implied threat that Hong Kong may lose its special freewheeling trade status to deny China an economic lifeline runs the risk of transforming a weakening territory into a non-asset for both China and the West. Could the doctor kill the patient?

If Hong Kong lost its lustre as a bargaining chip for trade, Taiwan, and capital inflow, it would hasten the end of "one country, two systems". This would be devastating for the embattled territory.

Rule of law is what enables Hong Kong's high level of autonomy and freedoms. As former judge Henry Litton rightly stressed, common law holds the territory together and makes it such a valuable player on the financial stage. He argues that strengthening, not weakening, "one country, two systems" might encourage Beijing to extend the common-law lease after 2047.

The genesis of the American legislative brouhaha goes back to the Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, which allows the US to view a highly autonomous Hong Kong as separate from China in matters of trade and international economic discourse. The act supports democratisation as a "fundamental principle of United States foreign policy" and human rights "as a basis for Hong Kong's continued economic prosperity".

The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act reaffirms this, with sharper teeth. It introduces sanctions for those "undermining fundamental freedoms and autonomy" in the territory and specifies support for the "selection of the chief executive and all members of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage, as articulated in the Basic Law".

The act also provides for the punishment of anyone involved in the "actual or threatened rendition, arbitrary detention, torture, or forced confession of any individual in Hong Kong". While it remains to be seen how this can be usefully enforced, US-flag-waving radicals in Hong Kong would do well to heed repeated references to upholding the law.

Hong Kong's freedoms have enabled demonstrators to make their point so forcefully over six savage months. But arson, vandalism, doxxing, thuggish behaviour and the inability to listen to alternative voices is not in congruence with democratic aspirations or the spirit of the law. Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has been accused of having a tin ear, but the same could be said of many of the city's youth, whose hugely supported peaceful civil disobedience action has lost its way and disintegrated into robotic violence.

Lam must take full responsibility for the city's slide into civil war. Yet her masterly inaction leaves civil society to step into the vacuum to moderate, assuage and direct student frustration.

A start to healing can come after the November 24 district council elections, which would allow residents to express their views through the ballot rather than bricks. This could release sufficient steam for the city to cool down and give much-needed rest to cleaners, commuters, emergency services, students and the police. Any attempt to derail the electoral process by weak-kneed politicians fearful of losing their seats must be strongly discouraged.

In Hong Kong crisis, the joke's on Washington

To tamp down rumours in the febrile atmosphere, the press must do its bit to address fake reports. Mature media operations, for all their faults and foibles, run their information through a robust process of verification, but this policing is entirely lacking on the internet.

Algorithms harden preferences by serving up increasing quantities of material similar to what has been viewed, leaving the young exposed to ever more incendiary material. Meanwhile, others are inundated by waves of texts and images, much of it doctored, to persuade members of one camp to the other.

In August, Twitter suspended 936 accounts that were allegedly part of a Beijing-backed campaign to sow political discord in Hong Kong by undermining the protest movement, after suspending 200,000 other similar accounts. Facebook followed suit to eliminate several posts referring to demonstrators as "cockroaches". Conversely, while police excesses are well documented, fake posts and insinuations against officers have taken on a life of their own.

With the city at tipping point, will the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act make a difference? If protesters set upon the streets with renewed vigour, will US legislators " transfixed by the impeachment show " have the will to rein in or penalise errant radicals? Beijing, already convinced the US is behind the street upheavals, is unlikely to have a change of heart though trade realpolitik may temper its actions.

If sensibly contextualised by pan-democrats, this act could be a grand opportunity for protesters to walk away with a seeming moral victory. Hustings can cool tempers further and move solution-seeking discourse from muscle to mind. More hearteningly, it may hasten the departure of Lam and her waxworks team. The Legislative Council needs to urgently revisit universal suffrage in a bipartisan manner. It has been awhile since the June 2015 walkout fiasco.

For Hong Kong, there is still time to have an independent commission of inquiry examine the city's structural weaknesses. A city upended for six months by paralysing protests is a frightfully poor report card for any government.

Vijay Verghese is a Hongkong-based journalist, columnist and the editor of AsianConversations.com and SmartTravelAsia.com

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