China’s global challenge over Hong Kong
Like many other governments, China’s seems to be taking advantage of the world’s preoccupation with the Corona pandemic to advance its own selfish interests. Now it has effectively declared that dissidents in the former British colony of Hong Kong pose a threat to the ruling Communist party in Beijing.
This should not have been a surprise: over the past year China refrained from intervening militarily in the mass protests taking place in Hong Kong against a controversial extradition law. But its shadow has long loomed ominously over the territory. Having passed the peak of Covid-19 itself, it is now threatening to implement oppressive new policies that will end the “one country two systems” framework.
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, has called on the G7 group of wealthy nations to discuss this issue urgently. Patten personally oversaw the 1997 handover to China on the basis of the agreement known as the “Joint Declaration,” negotiated by Margaret Thatcher in 1984.
In the end, Hong Kong survived with its liberties– legislative, judicial and commercial - more or less intact for 25 years after the end of British rule. But since 2013, when President Xi Jinping took over, it has been downhill all the way. China has tried to enforce legal and psychological obedience in Hong Kong, even demanding education to instil "patriotism" in children.
On May 21st the National People’s Congress passed a law requiring that subversive or secessionist Hong Kongers would be subject to similar action taken against Uighurs and Tibetans. Hong Kong itself is likely to be required to agree to Beijing’s secret police being stationed there. The People’s Daily trumpeted approval of the plan as the “resolute expression of 1.4 billion Chinese people,” adding: “It sends a strong signal … to anti-China forces in Hong Kong desperately fighting like a cornered wild beast: your defeat has already been decided.”
The wider geopolitical context matters. In recent years tensions have mounted with India, Australia and the US, and over China’s navy setting up new bases in the South China Sea. Taiwan is understandably feeling nervous as well.
Donald Trump, the US president, has behaved true to unpredictable form. Having praised Beijing for its initial handling of the Corona pandemic, he has since attacked it repeatedly for delaying responses, allowing millions of people to travel from the epicentre in Wuhan to elsewhere in the country and the wider world. The US decision to leave the World Health Organization was largely about what he saw as excessive Chinese influence. Trade issues and growing strategic rivalry have brought relations to a new low.
On May 27, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, declared that “facts on the ground” showed that Hong Kong was no longer autonomous -- a decision that could result in the loss of its special trading status with the US, and threaten its standing as an international financial hub.
The problem facing Washington is that any sanctions imposed will harm both American businesses and the people of Hong Kong. The Hong Kong government warned: “Any sanctions are a double-edged sword that will not only harm the interests of Hong Kong but also significantly those of the US.” Trump famously also lacks the ability to build alliances, and his administration has often been described as having an attitude to China, but not a strategy.
The president’s many critics worry that he will opt for what serves his re-election campaign best, emphasising his credentials in confronting Bejing – at a time of severe domestic unrest across the US. “Trump blasts China for crackdown on freedoms, rights and protests in Hong Kong and then talks about (how) looting can lead to shooting,” tweeted one former White House aide. The president’s comments were also seized upon by a Hong Kong commentator who is loyal to Beijing: “Never mind the carnage and chaos in his own backyard, it’s all about fixing China using its weakest link, Hong Kong, as a sad little pawn in the greater geopolitical struggle between the two powers.”
In one way, Britain’s immediate reaction has been impressively generous, if ironic, in the light of its controversial decision to leave the EU earlier this year – aka Brexit. Up to three million Hong Kong residents may now have the right to live in the UK. Chinese media welcomed the British decision sarcastically – hailing it as ensuring that less “traitors” would be living under its control!
The European Union has responded less well. Its foreign policy chief, Josep Borell, said that China’s move to strengthen its hold on Hong Kong didn’t put “investment deals” at risk, contradicting European businesses that have expressed concern about continuing commercial ties. He also ruled out the imposition of sanctions.
“China’s assault on Hong Kong’s freedom and its outrageous breach of its treaty obligation to this great city are matters of global concern,” as Chris Patten wrote. But whether that concern will be translated into practical and effective measures to punish an increasingly belligerent Beijing remains a vexed and unanswered question.