China will be a major foreign policy challenge for the new Biden Administration. This week’s crackdown in Hong Kong demonstrates Beijing’s determination to rid the territory of as many opposition figures as possible. On Wednesday, Hong Kong police arrested over 50 activists, former lawmakers, and academics. All of those arrested had played a role in the July 2020 effort to nominate opposition candidates for a legislative election that was cancelled later on. Under the national security law passed by Beijing, those arrested now face sentences ranging up to life in prison if convicted.
The crackdown brings into question how the incoming Biden administration will contend with China’s actions in Hong Kong, as well as what the future US response will be to Beijing’s more aggressive moves in the region and globally. Wednesday’s arrests offer a glimpse at the shape these coming policies might take. Biden’s selection for secretary of state Antony Blinken wrote on Twitter “The sweeping arrests of pro-democracy demonstrators are an assault on those bravely advocating for universal rights. The Biden-Harris administration will stand with the people of Hong Kong and against Beijing’s crackdown on democracy.”
Blinken’s tweet certainly sound nice and strike an appropriate balance of concern for human rights, and assurance that a Biden administration will oppose China’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong. But actions speak louder than words. Will a Biden administration levy sanctions against Beijing for Hong Kong? Or will the matter be quietly swept under the rug in order to proclaim a fresh start to the US-China relationship after four years of its predecessor consistently taking a hard line on China? Time will tell.