Over half a million people filled the streets of Hong Kong on July 1, marching for democracy on the anniversary of the British colony’s handover to Chinese Communist rule in 1997. On June 29, an unofficial referendum organized by democracy activists concluded with 800,000 votes cast—more than one-tenth of Hong Kong’s population. The overwhelming majority supported a democratic election for Hong Kong’s next chief executive.

Currently, Hong Kong’s top official is chosen from among Beijing-approved candidates by a committee of 1,200 people, mostly allies of Beijing. Marchers on July 1 ridiculed this arrangement, holding up signs bearing the number “689,” the number of votes won by the incumbent, Leung Chun-ying.

Beijing has promised that in 2017, the Hong Kong chief executive will be popularly elected. Hoping to tamp down expectations of an actual democratic election with a competitive nomination process, however, Beijing issued a white paper on June 10 that identified “loving the country” as the “basic political requirement” for civil servants, including the chief executive. For Beijing, “love” means loyalty to the Communist party, disdain for civil liberties undergirded by the rule of law, and hostility to democracy. The people of Hong Kong were not persuaded, and the massive turnout for the referendum and march delivered a huge setback to Beijing.

The international community is more easily intimidated. Foreign leaders have been mostly silent. One welcome exception is Lord Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, who objected to the notion that Hong Kong’s judges should knuckle under to Beijing. He had words as well for Western companies that have lined up against the democracy movement, some withholding advertising from a major newspaper that takes a pro-democracy line. “I can only assume that they haven’t had the agreement of their global headquarters for what they have been saying,” Patten said, perhaps with a wink. “I would imagine that their global heads would have been surprised and slightly embarrassed.”

There’s plenty more embarrassment to go around. The Obama administration’s response to the massive display of support for democracy has been more appropriate to a teenager shrugging “whatever” than a major power expressing itself on a central pillar of the president’s Asia policy. Announcing the “pivot to Asia” in an address to the Australian parliament in November 2011, President Obama waxed eloquent: “History is on the side of the free—free societies, free governments, free economies, free people. And the future belongs to those who stand firm for those ideals, in this region and around the world.” Yet on July 1, the deputy spokesperson for Obama’s State Department, Marie Harf, said it was “not for me to say” whether Beijing should take note of the Hong Kong people’s aspirations for democracy. She and more senior officials should say precisely that and much more.

So far, Congress hasn’t been much better. Under the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, America supports Hong Kong’s autonomy, civil liberties, and democratization. Four original Senate cosponsors of the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act remain in office—Senator Mitch McConnell, who introduced the bill, and Senators Chuck Grassley, John McCain, and Richard Shelby. (Another, Max Baucus, then a senator from Montana, is now the U.S. ambassador in Beijing.) They should amend the law to reflect Hong Kong’s surging democracy movement and Beijing’s increasing interference in Hong Kong’s affairs, which has made the original “one country, two systems” concept an “unsustainable illusion,” in the words of Margaret Ng, a barrister and former pro-democracy member of the legislature.

Seventeen years ago, Great Britain stepped aside and the United States assumed the role of Hong Kong’s chief international defender. At the time, an American diplomat said that was only natural: “It is who we are.” The phrase will be familiar to anyone who has listened to President Obama’s speeches about the priority America places on supporting democracy abroad. Words are fine, but meaningless without action.

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