US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) and President Donald Trump. Photo: AFP/Mandel Ngan

In late-1990s Hong Kong, Ellen Bork was my tennis partner. Yes, the daughter of US Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, already a prominent conservative lawyer in her own right. During our court time, Bork was serving as counsel to Martin Lee, founder and then chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, defender of the city’s freedoms before and after its 1997 handover to China.

America’s far right has long been first in line to embrace Hong Kong democrats, starting with Lee. At this critical moment, as Beijing imposes national-security laws, breaking the handover promise made 24 years ago of a high degree of autonomy for 50 years, America’s far-right defenders of Hong Kong propose killing it.

Bork joined Martin Lee’s office fresh from a senior position at the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then chaired by Jesse Helms of North Carolina. During his 30-year Senate tenure, Helms championed racism, homophobia and xenophobia, trafficking in innuendo and outright lies.

Personally courteous and politically venomous, Helms had no time for rules or protocol that didn’t serve his ends. In that sense, this Southerner who yearned to turn the clock back to a white, Christian, racially segregated America was way ahead of his time.

To paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz, Helms waged politics as war by other means. He was Senator No, opposing the Civil Rights Act, Equal Rights Amendment, Martin Luther King National Holiday, sanctions against apartheid South Africa and anything else tinged with liberalism.

A former television commentator, Helms railed against largely imagined threats from communism, creeping socialism, atheism, tolerance and inclusion, manufacturing headlines that fueled his fundraising. Again, ahead of his time.

Helms chairing the Foreign Relations Committee was like Greta Thunberg running an airline. An avowed militarist and nationalist, Helms hated foreign aid, the United Nations, the State Department and globalism. Yet when Martin Lee visited Washington, he called on Helms.

Watching from Hong Kong, I found Lee’s embrace of Helms troubling. Helms’ toxic extremism made it difficult for moderates and liberals to support Hong Kong enthusiastically, especially during the tense times leading up to the handover, when the city needed all the friends it could get.

The deeper reason to question Lee’s ties to Helms went to the senator’s motives. Helms hated China and believed advocating democracy for Hong Kong would hurt China. (Again Helms was ahead of his time, anticipating President Xi Jinping and his pack of Wolf Warriors now spouting the same bogus line.) After the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Helms and fellow hardline anti-communists drooled about a similar fate for China. 

From Beijing’s perspective, Martin Lee’s close ties to a US politician dedicated to the destruction of the Communist Party of China cast doubt on Hong Kong democrats’ commitment to “one country, two systems,” the post-handover relationship between the city and the mainland.

In the Hong Kong-Beijing dynamic littered with strategic and tactical miscalculations amid mutual mistrust, Lee’s links to Helms stand among the original sins. Lee should have understood that for Helms, who died in 2008, it was never about helping Hong Kong, only about hating China.

Today, Helms’ legacy lives on in Donald Trump’s White House. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has recommended ending Hong Kong’s special trade status because Beijing has eroded the city’s autonomy. That’s a gesture against China that punishes the victim. Hong Kong people and businesses, not Beijing and its handpicked Hong Kong leadership, will bear the burden of added trade restrictions.

National security adviser Robert O’Brien went further in an interview on the US television show Meet the Press. O’Brien suggested that Western financial institutions pull out of Hong Kong if China imposes the national-security law that will permit mainland secret police to operate openly in the city. If the Trump administration actually cared about Hong Kong, it would try to protect Hong Kong’s role as a regional financial hub, not dismantle it.

Hong Kong’s finance sector employs 250,000 and generates more than 20% of the city’s gross domestic product. If sanctions – or draconian national-security statutes – destroy Hong Kong’s financial center, China will turn to other hubs and expand mainland free-trade zones, with the profits going to Chinese banks. It will indeed sound the “death knell” for Hong Kong that Pompeo predicts from the national-security law. 

China’s leaders must be secretly laughing at the Trump administration strategy of punishing Hong Kong for Beijing’s excesses. Even Jesse Helms, if he’s looking up at Washington, might be ashamed.

Muhammad Cohen wrote Hong Kong On Air, a novel set during the 1997 handover about TV news, love, betrayal, high finance and cheap lingerie.