On Friday, US Republican Senator Ted Cruz single-handedly struck down the Hong Kong People’s Freedom and Choice Act on the Senate floor, forcing the bill to be delayed until next year.
The bill, unanimously approved by the House of Representatives and pushed by Hong Kong activists in the wake of the national security law, would extend Temporary Protected Status to Hongkongers in the US — alongside those from other countries like El Salvador, Haiti, and South Sudan — and create a priority track for Hong Kong political dissidents to apply for refugee status.
Cruz couched his opposition along partisan lines, calling the measure a “messaging bill” by the Democrats that would endanger national security by loosening immigration laws. He specifically cited an increased risk of infiltration by Chinese spies and the Democrats’ failure to be “tough on China.”
Bipartisan lobbyists like former Demosisto activist Jeffrey Ngo and the Hong Kong Democracy Council’s Samuel Chu have expressed discontent at the legislator, seen by many in the movement as one of the strongest advocates for Hong Kong’s struggle.
But Cruz’s last-minute betrayal is no surprise, especially for those familiar with the US’s chequered foreign policy record. The Democrats are not exempt from blame, but far-right politicians like Cruz have consistently demonstrated the extreme lengths to which the US will go in betraying democratic movements and activists worldwide.
Recently, President Donald Trump’s rescinding of TPS for Haitian and Salvadorean migrants and withdrawal of resources for Kurdish allies — leaving them at the mercy of Turkish aggression and jihadist violence — are good examples.
Rather than an exception to the rule, Cruz’s decision offers a glimpse into the Republicans’ strategy for Hong Kong and China. Hong Kong is just a pawn for amplifying a larger, racist geopolitical struggle that would only spell further oppression for everyday Hongkongers, mainland Chinese people and many others. The US’s loud support for Hongkongers in the past year reached its predictable limit when the issue touched on borders and immigration —aspects that would materially benefit Hongkongers but which Democrats and Republicans have been rolling back for years.
In particular, fearmongering about China and the need to protect borders from refugee flows (which US foreign policy helped create) have long been pillars of the Republican agenda. With the ebbing of the protest movement in Hong Kong, they have no hesitation in prioritising the US geopolitical interest in containing China’s rise over the lives of Hongkongers, by appealing to a racially-charged rhetoric of national security.
It is under this logic that Cruz persistently mobilises a purported fear of letting in Chinese Communist Party (CCP) spies to promote the Republican Party’s broad agenda of attacking human rights, among other domestic systemic issues.
As Hongkongers, we should be familiar with the tactic of suppressing democratic rights by using national security as a bludgeon.
US rightwingers have managed to kill two birds with one stone: “supporting” Hongkongers just enough to agitate against China so Washington can pose as a champion of human rights, and mobilising the same fearmongering against China to justify withdrawing crucial resources for Hongkongers when the situation is most desperate.
Cruz’s cynical act is not due to a single tactical mistake by diaspora activists: his betrayal calls into question the entire strategy of focusing solely on a political organ such as the US Congress. At best it offers only gestural support to Hongkongers when the political winds are favourable and at worst it actively discards them. There have been many warning signs.
Trump himself has praised President Xi Jinping on multiple occasions, especially when easing up on the trade war would be favourable for him, telling Xi privately that creating detention camps in Northwest China was “exactly the right thing to do.” He also publicly threatened to veto last year’s Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.
The heightening of the so-called “new Cold War” bodes ill for all oppressed peoples in and around the two superpowers’ orbits of power. Both countries operate on the same global neoliberal and colonial logic that thrives on a fundamental denial of human rights.
Reaction to Cruz on the LIHKG messageboard varied widely from labelling him part of the “deep state,” to praising him for putting US national security first, to blaming “left plastics” (a pejorative term for those whose naive idealism obstructs pragmatic politics and mainstream discourse) for making Republicans unhappy. There were further leaps of logic about Cruz’s supposed long game in rejecting this “weak” bill and pressing for a better one in the future.
Such varied rationalisations are understandable to the extent that they struggle to accommodate an unexpected betrayal into the popular perception of the US as the only ally powerful enough to help Hong Kong resist China, a narrative Cruz was more than happy to exploit during last year’s protests.
Though this perception has made all the more sense under the crushing immediacy of the National Security Law, Cruz’s actions have exposed its internal faultlines. The truth is, we cannot think of the US as a neutral counterweight to Chinese authoritarianism. While Cruz stands opposed to other Republican senators who support the legislation, what we have seen is that US legislators negotiate their own relationships in support of an increasingly bipartisan anti-China agenda — in which Hong Kong mainly serves as a throwaway chip at different moments.
In other words, Cruz’s betrayal is only another instance in which Hongkongers’ uncritical loyalty to certain politicians and lobbying efforts prove futile in the face of US state elites coldly negotiating their own interests with or against their Chinese counterparts.
This does not mean we must stop seeking support for Hongkongers in the US and beyond, but we need a critical look at who our true and most effective allies are. The Republicans’ distaste for Temporary Protected Status is well-known, and Cruz’s decision puts us in the same boat as other migrant allies threatened by the GOP’s attacks in recent years.
From Japanese-Americans interned during World War II to the current panic over “Chinese scientists,” the US state has often racially cast East Asians broadly as uniquely suited for espionage because of their supposed inscrutability.
These xenophobic stereotypes are well-known: in other contexts, the US engaged in a decades-long campaign to spread disinformation by smearing all Latin American migrants as criminals, from drug dealers to rapists.
Because all such racial panics offer a rationale to restrict immigration, Hongkongers’ solidarity with other migrant and refugee organisations can offer us a position of strength by connecting our varying complaints against state repression and exploitation across different peoples.
The fate of this bill and the lobbying efforts behind it spell out the dangerof not cultivating relationships between grassroots and migrant-centred organisations accountable to their communities.
Luckily, we do not need to reinvent the wheel in looking for these new lines of support. Latin American migrants and community groups have spent decades developing resources for refugees and other immigrants from their war-torn home countries. “Sanctuary policies” were developed and gained traction originally in the 1980s especially by Salvadorean activists. What began as mobilising community-wide support networks through churches and local mutual aid programmes eventually expanded into national political demands in coalition with a variety of civil society organizations — from labour unions to other advocacy groups.
New student-led groups like the International and Immigrant Student Workers Alliance can provide avenues to advocate for the rights of Hongkongers and other student workers. In the context of increasingly strict border controls, and the failure to provide a reprieve for Hongkongers, sanctuary policies — both in the form of government policies and community-led initiatives — mitigate fears of detention and deportation, while ensuring that undocumented migrants can still access necessary services and resources.
We can pivot to learning, showing solidarity, and allying with such demands for sanctuary and immigration expansion with established community and even electoral infrastructures. Allying with these groups rather than Congressional figures like Cruz is not only the more principled position but provides a much more secure foundation for transnational solidarity with Hong Kong.
Geopolitical priorities between the US and China, for politicians on both sides of the aisle, can change swiftly. But migrant justice groups and other movement-based organisations always prioritise the interests of migrants and the underprivileged. The key should not be simply securing one or both sides of the aisle, but critically understanding how the two-party system in US politics obscures a more effective type of political engagement centered on mass movement-building, which articulates politics on the basis of grassroots social justice.
In addition, we must not see Chinese-American communities and activist organisations as necessarily antagonistic to Hong Kong’s movement. It is undeniable that the CCP has sought to extend its influence over them but these groups are by no means a lost cause. In fact, the CCP is anxious to garner their support because it knows that an alliance between the Chinese diaspora and Hongkongers would pose a greater risk to its authority than any US sanctions or heightening of geopolitical tensions.
Groups like the Chinese Progressive Association — which broke with many Asian-American organisations to support dissidents in the wake of the Tiananmen Square Massacre — are at the forefront of organising Chinese-American communities, mobilising widespread support, and influencing policy.
The US Republican institution is broadly opposed to grassroots organising as a whole, most recently undermining attempts by activists to broaden access to voting across traditionally “blue” (Democrat) states. It is in the GOP’s interest to maintain Hongkongers’ dependence on their own party and on Congress more broadly, since such dependence funnels all activist energy into a single channel that can be opened or shut at will, as Cruz’s actions have shown.
Supposed allies of Hong Kong such as Cruz thus fear a potential alliance between Hongkongers and progressive organisations, and have promoted rampant disinformation, smearing activists as CCP agents without evidence earlier this year.
In truth, Asian-American leftists have demonstrated a continued commitment to activism against Chinese state oppression. In New York City, Asian-American leftists pivotal in mobilising solidarity with progressive city policies and Black Lives Matter also pushed to support the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act last year.
Flushing Anti-Displacement Alliance activists have fought the widespread displacement of working-class communities by developers backed by many Chinese state-owned banks and capital.
A broad terrain of movements and coalitions exists for Hongkongers to develop new and improved “international lines” to most effectively combat the CCP’s power. By building coalitions with other oppressed communities, Hongkongers can benefit from and further strengthen existing migrant justice coalitions and demands.
This promises substantive solutions to aid Hongkongers and our struggles, not just a path of compromises and betrayals.
This article originally appeared on Lausan.
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