Hong Kong protester John Wang* worries that if Joe Biden wins, China wins.
The U.S. presidential election is three weeks away, and supporters of Hong Kong's democracy movement believe the outcome will have a direct impact on the future of the embattled city.
"If Biden is elected, they will have one more pawn they can use," said the financial worker, who like many people interviewed for this article did not want to be identified by their real name for fear of violating a new national security law.
If the Democratic nominee is successful in his bid to unseat President Donald Trump, some Hongkongers worry he could give a free pass to the Chinese government to continue the erosion of democratic freedoms in the city.
"When there is no single country in the world and no truly powerful person to check and balance the behavior of the Chinese Communist Party (CPP), then all human rights oppression, bullying and corruption that has occured in China today will spread to every corner of the world, every country, every place, and even every people," said Wang, who would vote for Trump if he had a ballot.
Experts say there's nothing to indicate that Biden's China policy will be more relaxed than the Trump administration's. But Wang fears Biden would be played and manipulated, while Trump would be tough and aggressive. And the fact that Beijing allegedly prefers Biden is itself a disqualifying factor, in his opinion.
Part of his suspicions come from beliefs that Biden played a key role in helping bring China into the global fold without any changes in its human rights policies. There are also the widely circulated conspiracy theories about Biden and his son Hunter, which the Trump administration has played up repeatedly. The claims accuse Hunter of engaging in sketchy business with companies involved in human rights abuses.
"The CCP also knows that the difference between [Joe Biden] and Donald Trump is that he can be bought," he said, alluding to the younger Biden's business interests in China and Ukraine, which have been a punching bag for Trump.
A July poll for Newsweek found that 36 percent of Hongkongers with all political affiliations supported Trump, 33 percent were for Biden, and 31 percent didn't know. In some ways, the breakdown mirrors views about a Biden presidency held by Democratic voters. The Hongkongers who are in favor of Biden are rarely thrilled about his candidacy but still consider him a better option than Trump who is seen by non-supporters as everything the movement is fighting against. Even if Biden is not the optimal choice, the reasoning goes, at least he upholds the basic values of democracy, while Trump is busy dismantling them.
"I don't like Joe Biden very much, but I do not hate him. But I hate Donald Trump, and that's why I support Joe Biden. I hate - hate - Donald Trump," said an IT-worker in his forties.
He was certain Biden would be at least as tough on China as Trump; he only wished the Democratic nominee would be a bit more vocal about it, so as to not project the image he was scared to take a stand. As the international political attitude towards China has changed over the last few years, so has Biden's. In the last half-decade, China’s human rights record has taken center stage in debates about the country, and world leaders, including Biden, have grown less tolerant of China's human rights abuses, Cheung said.
Shi Ng*, a student at an international high school, agreed.
"My overall impression of Biden is that he has recognized this threat to human rights that's around, he just isn't loud about it," he said. "I don't see him going the extra mile for Hong Kong, but I don't see a scenario where he won't end up doing the right thing."
Who is more 'weak' on China?
Biden's current policy platform aligns naturally with the long-standing values of the democracy movement, and the narrative that China constitutes a threat has bipartisan support. Democrats, most notably House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have also backed the implementation of legislation in support of Hong Kong, including the Human Rights and Democracy Bill.
In fact, since the beginning of the demonstrations in Hong Kong about a year ago, Biden has repeatedly criticized Trump's stance on China for being "weak," even blaming him for clampdowns against dissent there.
The sweeping national security law, which criminalized just about any form of dissent in Hong Kong, was passed under President Trump's watch. In response, the administration imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions. It removed Hong Kong's special status with the United States, stripping them of a range of economic benefits. Then it imposed diplomatic sanctions on Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam and 10 other officials involved in the crackdowns.
The Trump administration has also imposed sanctions on persons and companies involved in the human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang Province. But Trump has also been accused of cozying up to authoritarian leaders. He called China leader Xi Jinping "a friend of mine" and an "incredible guy," and, in spite of his sanctions, Trump allegedly told Xi that building concentration camps for Uighurs was "exactly the right thing to do."
"It's no wonder Beijing is acting with impunity. Time and again. President Trump has surrendered our values and reassured China's autocrats they have a like-minded partner in the White House," the Biden campaign said in a statement in July, also promising to be "strong, clear and consistent in standing up for our values."
In Ng's view, Biden would likely have implemented the same policies that Trump has to combat China's human rights abuses. His main concern was that, with Trump garnering so much support in Hong Kong, Biden would never be able to satisfy protesters should he win.
"I think people in Hong Kong should give Biden's presidency a shot. After a couple of years, they may see that things aren't as bad as they originally thought. But I worry that people may not be open-minded and continue to insist that 'Trump would have done better,'" he told VICE News.
Differences and similarities
According to Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King's College London, Biden's ability and readiness to cooperate across borders would be the main contrast between his China policy and Trump's.
"It's likely that Biden would make life slightly more difficult for China by putting more effort into creating a common front between Western countries and other significant powers, but Trump irritates the hell out of the Chinese government," he told VICE News, referring to the president's rhetoric and unpredictability on China.
Jeffrey Ngo, a prominent face of Hong Kong's democracy movement and former chief researcher of Demosisto, said that Biden "carries a lot of baggage" but that the two candidates actually have many things in common on Hong Kong.
Ngo has often faced online harassment from pro-Trump Hongkongers for voicing criticism against the president. And while he did not think Biden was the best Democratic candidate during the primaries, he emphasized the importance of recognizing the bipartisan nature of the more recent approach to China.
"Because the bipartisan consensus already exists, and that consensus is to be tough on China and to support human rights in Hong Kong, I think the difference between the two candidates is perhaps less than most people think," said Ngo, who describes himself as an "activist historian" and is a working towards a PhD at Georgetown University.
From his perspective, Biden's history of being open to improving relations with Beijing and the role he played in bringing China into the World Trade Organization (WTO) during Bill Clinton's presidency have hurt him. To Hongkongers quick to dig up the history, he has a lot of trust to rebuild.
"He was very much part of Clinton's idea that it was a fundamentally good idea to embrace China, and I think most Hongkongers reject that in light of events transpiring today," Ngo told VICE News. "But a lot of what he says aligns with [those] supporting human rights in Hong Kong."
But from all indications, it would appear that Biden has had something of an epiphany on China-related issues. Biden says he will be at least as hardline on China as Trump - and according to experts, there's no reason not to believe him.
"The Democrats did not anticipate China being as strong as it is today. They thought China was so underdeveloped and therefore not a threat, and they assumed that there was plenty of time," said Ann Lee, a professor and author who has written multiple books on US-China relations. "The bottom line is that everyone in Washington now sees China as a threat to US supremacy…Hong Kong is just one of many different fronts."
Biden has threatened harder sanctions than Trump has imposed. The Democratic Party's 2020 policy platform likewise set a stronger tone when it comes to the party's China policy, and Biden's campaign has consistently played down Trump's supposed hard line on China.
The Case of Hunter Biden
Biden's reputation in Hong Kong has been the victim of much intense speculation, which has been fueled by scrutiny and misinformation around Hunter Biden's business relations in China. Rumors that Joe Biden's integrity on China-related issues is for sale have flourished in pro-Trump circles in Hong Kong, and they often echo unfounded allegations that Trump has made against the former vice president's family.
"Look, as a Hongkonger, I don't believe in Joe Biden. He has a nickname here in Hong Kong, 'China Joe,' because he has personal interests there. Especially his son Hunter Biden has a lot of business interests with Chinese businessmen," said Nicholas Tsang*, a 20-something year-old worker in the financial sector.
Some believe that Hunter Biden was gifted large sums of money by the Chinese government in order to sway his father into engaging in favorable trade deals during his vice presidency, though there is no evidence for the claim.
"Worst of all was the last eight years under President Obama and Biden, where his son gets a billion and a half dollars, and then they're supposed to be tough on China. Doesn't work that way," Trump said in a 2019 interview with Fox Business.
There is no proof that the younger Biden's actions in China have been illegal in any way, and it is unclear where the $1.5 billion sum came from. Relatives of both Democrats and Republicans alike have long engaged in business dealings in China, including Trump's own children. Forty-one of Ivanka Trump's trademark requests in China were sped up after Trump was elected.
Tsang alleged that Hunter Biden had directly contributed to the development of Face++, the surveillance technology that can "recognize anyone, anywhere." The software was used to monitor Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang - a practice its developers Megvii has since distanced itself from.
The company Hunter Biden served on the board of, BHR Partners, did invest in Megvii in 2017, but that was before it was clear what the company's technology would be used for. Hunter Biden resigned from the board of the company when it became clear it could spell trouble for his father's presidential campaign. To squash any accusations that conflicts of interest could occur, he also vowed to stop taking foreign work for other companies should his father win the presidency.
But as Brown from King's College London pointed out, having business ties with what will soon be the world's largest economy is not exactly unusual.
"Well, you know Trump has business interests in China, too. I think it's hard to find people who don't. Everyone has to deal with that, so I don't think that's super significant. And I don't think that the links Biden has are as significant as those of Trump's," said Brown.
Still, Biden's record as a whole means that some Hongkongers feel they cannot rely on him.
"I can understand that Hongkongers support Trump, because there is no doubt this bipartisan shift happened under Trump's watch, so it is natural to associate a tough-on-China approach with a Trump administration," concluded Ngo from Georgetown. "Biden has promises, and it is up to people whether or not to trust those promises."
Joyce Leung contributed reporting.
Names marked with * have been changed to protect sources from potential prosecution under the national security law in Hong Kong.