Is Puerto Rico Like Hong Kong?

Alex Lo wrote an opinion piece in the South China Morning Post suggesting that the U.S. government has no right to say China interferes with Hong Kong. Lo’s support for this position is a comparison of Hong Kong and Puerto Rico.

The comments about China’s relationship with Hong Kong came from the annual report of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. This report said, “In a trend that has worsened since last year, mainland China has sought to exercise greater control over Hong Kong despite Hong Kong citizens’ desire for more autonomy and democratic governance.”

Examples from the report:

  • The banning of six pro-independent candidates in recent elections
  • The abduction of five booksellers who sold books critical of mainland China
  • Pressure on freedom of speech and freedom of the press as well as academic freedom

Lo did not dispute these claims, but suggested that the United States behaves the same way toward Puerto Rico. “Beijing formally controls the foreign and military affairs of Hong Kong,” he said,  “while we still run our own trade, currency, border control, government, tax, law, water, energy and much else.”

U.S. laws apply to Puerto Rico, just as they apply to the 50 states.

Lo described the PROMESA fiscal oversight board as “US federal agencies now run the island’s banking and legal systems.”

He points out that the United States has control over “foreign trade and relations, shipping and maritime laws, broadcasting regulations, postal service, immigration, social security, customs, transportation, defense, the environment, territorial waters and air space.” Lo goes on to point out that Puerto Rico uses U.S. currency, as does the rest of the United States. U.S. laws apply to the territory, just as those laws apply to the rest of the nation, even though Puerto Ricans have no say in final passage.

Lo further points out that Puerto Rico is poorer than any of the 50 states. This is also true, although it is not a consequence of “interference” or limitation of fundamental human rights by the U.S government. It is, many observers agree, the consequence of Puerto Rico’s territorial status.

Status questions.

Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997, when it became a “special administrative area” of China. Some say that it is a colony of China, just as some describe Puerto Rico as a colony of the United States. Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States under the U.S. Constitution.

“Poll after poll has shown most Puerto Ricans want to join the American union,” Lo points out. “Yet, last year, all three branches of the US government declared the island to be no better than a colony.” No branch of U.S. government declared that Puerto Rico is “no better than a colony.” All have declared that Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States and has no sovereignty.

Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission did not question the fact that Hong Kong belongs to China and did not object to Hong Kong’s status. The claims made by the report focused on interference in democratic elections and the suppression of free speech.

The United States does not interfere in Puerto Rico’s local elections. Government-run newspapers do not work against academic freedom.

Getting emotional

Lo complains that “the Obama White House said [Puerto Rico] was a US territorial possession without sovereignty, and the Supreme Court agreed.” Lo is correct, but this is not the U.S. government insulting Puerto Rico; it’s a simple statement of what Puerto Rico’s territorial status means. “Exactly a century ago,” Lo went on, “Washington granted US citizenship to a million people on the island. It promptly drafted 2 per cent of the population into fighting in world war one. That set off a century of ruthless American exploitation that is unabated today.”

“Ruthless American exploitation” is an emotional term. The report that set off Lo’s article didn’t suggest that China was ruthlessly exploiting Hong Kong, but rather that the mainland was suppressing democracy in Hong Kong. Nothing in the article supports the idea that the United States suppresses democracy within Puerto Rico’s local affairs.

Puerto Rico has clearly stated a desire to resolve the status question, giving up the territorial status for statehood. The federal government responded to that clear statement in 2012 by funding a new vote, which is scheduled for June 11th. Congress has a responsibility to resolve Puerto Rico’s status issue.  The connection between Puerto Rico and Hong Kong may have some parallels, but it is inexact.

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