In defense of sanctions

This article makes a very simple point: the sanctions that the United States has implemented against Hong Kong and Chinese officials are great, and the rest of the democratic world should follow this example.

I have been meaning to write about sanctions for nearly a month now, since the day Apple Daily was shut down, but have hesitated insofar as I assume that my position on sanctions is fairly obvious to everyone, and the last thing I want is to make my Substack boring.

This week, however, I was finally spurred from ambivalence into action by former US Ambassador to Hong Kong Kurt Tong’s Foreign Affairs article “Hong Kong and the limits of decoupling: why America struggles to punish China for its repression.”

Generally speaking, this was an insightful and frank piece that highlighted the endless conundrums the democratic world faces in attempting to hold the Chinese government accountable for its crimes in occupied Hong Kong and beyond.

Yet in his otherwise thoughtful argument, Tong unfortunately got sanctions wrong in a number of places. And in Tong’s misunderstandings, I caught sight of more common misunderstandings that I have seen raised on various occasions in the public sphere, motivating me to attempt to set the record straight here.

Tong’s first and most pointed criticism of sanctions against Hong Kong and Chinese officials is that they do not work insofar as they have not resulted in “policy reversal.” Policy reversal, however, has never been an immediate goal in implementing sanctions.

Magnitsky-style sanctions are designed to target officials in political systems that do not hold their officials accountable for grave human rights abuses: in many cases, these systems sadly encourage and award such abuses, as we can see in Hong Kong today.

Stripping away the protective shield of impunity afforded by these anachronistic political systems, sanctions redeploy the inherent appeal of travel to and life in the democratic world to begin to hold offenders accountable.

Yet beyond the punitive element, by blocking officials who have participated in human rights abuses from owning assets in or obtaining visas to travel to or settle in the democratic world, sanctions also protect countries from being corrupted by the influence and money of people who have obtained their influence and money by oppressing their own people. Sanctions thus realize that often cited yet rarely realized policy goal of a genuine “win-win situation.”

Insofar as policy reversal was never a realistic short-tern goal for sanctions, it is then incorrect to criticize sanctions for not achieving this goal. From a long-term perspective, however, sanctions indeed alter the calculus of obedience in targeted political systems.

Prior to the implementation of sanctions on Hong Kong officials, there was officially no downside to obeying the orders of the Liaison Office and its enablers in the city. Sanctions change that forever.

Who really wants to work in the national security office, knowing that one may never be able to open a bank account or travel internationally?

Who really wants to be the next Chief Executive of Hong Kong (other than Leung Chen-ying, Regina Ip, and the already sanctioned incumbent) knowing that the policies one has to enact in this position will lead to the implementation of global sanctions against oneself and one’s family?

To support his argument that sanctions do not work, Tong cites as evidence the fact that “Chinese officials actually get promoted if they get sanctioned by Washington.” Yet this fact could also be read as evidence that sanctions work: these officials are promoted precisely because they need to be promoted in order to even begin to make up for the pressures and losses resulting from sanctions. This is not so much a sign of strength in the face of sanctions as a sign of acute vulnerability.

Anyone who is concerned about Hong Kong’s freedoms and human rights should welcome such vulnerability and do all that one can to amplify it.

Second, Tong argues that any steps taken against Hong Kong’s financial sector for failing to abide by the requirements of sanctions would hurt the “livelihoods of innocent bystanders in the territory.”

Let’s set aside for the moment the burning question of the usefulness of sanctions if they are not in fact enforced. At a deeper level, I cannot help but feel that this concern for “innocent bystanders in the territory” overlooks the fact that the Hong Kong sanctions are an idea that emerged from of all places, Hong Kong.

Over the course of the always exciting past decade (a decade recounted in my forthcoming book Two Systems Two Countries), the idea of abolishing the United States’ Hong Kong Relations Act and enacting sanctions against Hong Kong officials took shape precisely in Hong Kong civil society, eventually becaming a widely accepted objective of the 2019 protest movement, before becoming a reality in the United States.

When I first encountered this idea, perhaps five or so years ago, I will admit that I also found this proposal extremely confusing: why would citizens of Hong Kong call on the United States government to sanction their own government? Wouldn’t this damage the livelihoods of innocent bystanders in the city?

It was only later that I realized that this mode of questioning missed the basic point: that the government to be sanctioned was not in fact “their own,” but was rather viewed as the occupying force of an external power that was already greatly damaging the livelihoods and liberties of innocent bystanders across the city.

It is safe to say that very few Hong Kong citizens feel sorry for the officials who have been sanctioned. I will go one step further and say that few tears will be shed in the city for any banks that are punished for failing to abide by the sanctions.

Tong’s misunderstandings of sanctions thus far are for the most part understandable, or at least forgivable. Yet my jaw literally dropped to the ground when I read his concluding argument, which I quote below:

“To be most effective, Western countries need to coordinate their messages condemning China’s actions in Hong Kong and issue them regularly and consistently, since officials in China and other countries will be watching to see if Washington and its partners continue to care about Hong Kong after media attention has turned elsewhere.”

I hate to break it to Tong, but this is not a new idea! Nor is it a useful idea, for that matter. As a friend on Twitter has pointed out many times, “expressing concern” and issuing strongly worded condemnations are basically the equivalent of “thoughts and prayers,” completely meaningless acts without even the slightest hint of any actual impact on the world.

Has the Chinese government made it illegal to call for expressions of concern? Has it hurriedly passed an anti-expression-of-concern law? No, despite decades of expressed concern, no such law exists. Yet in the short span of a year since sanctions were first implemented in Hong Kong, the Chinese government has indeed passed an anti-sanction law, and has effectively criminalized honest discussion of sanctions in Hong Kong.

We can infer from these facts that sanctions bother the Chinese and Hong Kong governments so much that they have literally forced citizens of the city to choose between complete silence on this topic, dishonesty, exile, or prison.

In a context in which innocent people are being arbitrarily detained and threatened with lengthy prison sentence simply for editing articles that mention sanctions, voicing concern about innocent bystanders in sanctions enforcement completely misses the point: innocent bystanders are already falling victim to this system, day after day, one after another. And the best tool that anyone has to begin to hold the officials responsible for these crimes to account is sanctions.

As such, I believe that it is incumbent upon all of us who are concerned about the situation in Hong Kong, and who live safely overseas beyond the scope of the National Security Law, to do all that we can to promote sanctions on a global scale, carrying on a tradition that local Hong Kong civil society can no longer continue. From Canada to the United Kingdom, to Australia, it is time for the democratic world to step up and punish the officials who have destroyed Hong Kong’s political and legal systems.

Forget your concerns and condemnation: the challenges of today require sanctions.