Pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong are girding for what some predict will be a tense final showdown with the Chinese government over whether Beijing will permit genuine democracy to take root in the former British colony.
But in Washington, where the political quarrels in a wealthy Asian financial center understandably capture less attention than marauding militants in Iraq or Russian artillery units in Ukraine, there has been little reaction to the clash in Hong Kong over a new voting law.
That should change this weekend, when Susan E. Rice, President Obama’s national security adviser, is scheduled to make her first visit to Beijing since taking the job 15 months ago. Administration officials say Ms. Rice will raise American concerns about the standoff in Hong Kong when she meets with Chinese leaders.
It will be just one topic on a crowded agenda that includes nuclear talks with Iran, tensions after a Chinese fighter jet buzzed an American surveillance plane last month, and President Vladimir V. Putin’s incursions into Ukraine, which American officials worry are being watched with a bit too much admiration by President Xi Jinping.
“It’s a relationship that has been somewhat frazzled and rocky over the last six months,” said Jeffrey A. Bader, a former senior adviser on China in the National Security Council. “Therefore, having White House involvement in the relationship helps steady it.”
For Ms. Rice, who prides herself on her blunt advocacy of human rights, the throngs of protesters in Hong Kong are difficult to ignore. While she does not want the topic to swamp her visit, a senior official said she would remind the Chinese that Hong Kong had thrived with Western-style civil liberties since Britain returned it to China in 1997.
A new law proposed by China’s legislature would require candidates for chief executive of Hong Kong to be vetted by a committee, effectively ruling out anyone the Chinese government deemed unacceptable. Pro-democracy activists are promising a “new era of civil disobedience,” with demonstrators threatening to paralyze the financial district of a city that is home to more than 50,000 American expatriates.
China’s likely response will be to tell Ms. Rice not to meddle in its internal affairs. Few people expect the Chinese government to retreat from its proposal, which has put Hong Kong’s pro-democracy parties in a bind because if they reject it, they are rejecting a law that, on paper, gives every citizen the right to vote for Hong Kong’s leader.
Still, pro-democracy leaders fervently hope Ms. Rice will register American concern, particularly since Hong Kong’s old colonial sovereign, Britain, which negotiated guarantees of civil liberties and autonomy with the Chinese for Hong Kong, has said next to nothing about it.
“Great Britain has already capitulated, so the Chinese have dismissed them,” said Anson Chan, a former top official in the Hong Kong government who has become a democratic activist. “But they do care — they especially care about what the United States says.”
A longtime democratic leader, Martin Lee, said the United States had a stake in the dispute that went beyond its usual commitment to democratic values. At the behest of China and Britain, it endorsed the 1984 joint declaration that guaranteed Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and its own political system for 50 years after the handover.
“China cannot tell the U.S., ‘none of your business,’ because they lobbied for U.S. support for it,” Mr. Lee said, adding that China might feel emboldened to breach international agreements. In March, Mr. Lee and Mrs. Chan visited Washington to drum up American support for Hong Kong’s beleaguered democrats. They met with the House minority leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, and with Senator Mark S. Kirk, Republican of Illinois, and they got a drop-in meeting with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. That infuriated Chinese officials, some of whom suggested that the United States was fomenting unrest.
For the first time since 2007, Congress has reinstated an annual reporting requirement in the 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act, which mandates that the State Department assess the city’s progress.
Still, the melancholy reality for Hong Kong is that the White House, like 10 Downing Street, has other fish to fry with the Chinese. To date, the only official American response to the voting law is a statement from the State Department that “the United States supports universal suffrage in Hong Kong,” but refrains from criticizing the Chinese government.
Administration officials declined to speak on the record about Hong Kong before Ms. Rice’s visit. A spokesman for the national security adviser, Patrick Ventrell, said, “The administration remains committed to our rebalance to Asia, and that includes close and continuing consultation with top Chinese leadership directly from the White House.”
In sending Ms. Rice, the White House is seeking to revive a channel that was used by her predecessor, Tom Donilon, who met several times with Dai Bingguo, then China’s top foreign-policy official. Mr. Dai has been replaced by Yang Jiechi, a former foreign minister who is viewed as having less influence with the top leaders than Mr. Dai.
Just getting to China has been tricky for Ms. Rice, given the cascade of crises in the Middle East and Ukraine. But with Mr. Obama scheduled to visit Beijing in November, officials said it was important for her to go to plan that visit. She will fly directly from the NATO summit meeting in Wales.
With Ukraine on her mind, she is likely to emphasize the West’s determination to counter Russia’s actions. Tensions between the United States and China spiked last month after a Chinese fighter came within 30 feet of a Navy surveillance plane.
With issues like that on the table, the twilight struggle of Hong Kong’s democrats may be the least of Ms. Rice’s worries.
By MARK LANDER September 4, 2014 in The New York Times