Never let a crisis go to waste. Late last month, China moved to pass a national security law for Hong Kong, drawing a firm line against what it sees as attempts to undermine its sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity. Not only did COVID-19 made sustaining protests against the measure difficult, it also undercut support from the international community preoccupied with pandemic response and worries about growing U.S.-China acrimony.
China is facing multiple domestic and international pressures. Most of these predate the pandemic and they are only bound to intensify in its aftermath. The hard road to recovery and fresh wave of outbreaks present grave challenges for the leadership. Abroad, demands for responsibility for the spread of the contagion, souring ties with the United States, and border disputes with neighbors hurt the country’s international standing. In this climate, China increasingly turns to a wolf-warrior stance. That posture does not tolerate feebleness especially in the home front. But will this posture only further weaken Beijing’s legitimacy in the eyes of Hongkongers, estrange Taiwan, and galvanize international pushback?
China’s move was motivated by the necessity of forestalling worst case scenarios, notably a violent revolution or separation of Hong Kong from the mainland. Hong Kong’s openness and unique status made it what it is and, in that role, contributed immensely to the development of the mainland. But growing unrest in the former British colony in recent years made hawks in Beijing think that its autonomy is becoming China’s Achilles’ heel—a cover for separatists and a license for foreign intervention. Was this a correct reading or a massive failure to grasp the changing landscape in Asia’s premier financial hub?
Beijing is beginning to step in where it sees the Hong Kong government stumbling. Failure of the Special Administrative Region to deal with the worsening situation capped by protests—which turned violent late last year—and concerns about foreign interference impressed the urgency of tougher responses. The pandemic only provided the environment to press for that. Beijing may think that showing indecisiveness in Hong Kong may only embolden dissidents and fire up similar agitation in other historically restive regions like Tibet and Xinjiang. It may also invite further external intervention. But will the heavy-handedness only fuel further resentment of the central government, undermine moderates and the pro-establishment, and strengthen the hands of radicals?
The Hong Kong government tried to introduce a national security bill in 2003 and an extradition bill last year. Both attempts failed not because the Hong Kong government was irresolute but rather because the people rejected it. The fear of losing the unique freedoms and liberties that made Hong Kong a distinctive part of China played well in the public’s mindset. Hong Kong’s status may have made it vulnerable to foreign influences, but Beijing should not overplay this to the detriment of ignoring people’s views and sentiments. Hongkongers are wary about becoming just like any other Chinese city. Not only is their economy on the line, but also the preservation of the administrative and legal values and traditions that became part of their way of life. Thus, balancing the demands of national unity and security with a commitment to preserving autonomy is an imperative. While Beijing can prod Hong Kong to enact a national security law based on the guidance issued by the National People’s Congress, it will still be up to the Hong Kong Legislative Council to take up the measure. Circumventing this will violate Article 23 of the Basic Law, a move that can hollow the spirit of the “One Country, Two Systems.”
China treats Hong Kong as an internal matter. Hence, it considers the reaction of the United States, United Kingdom, and the G-7 on the proposed national security law as an affront to its sovereignty. The passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act last November in the U.S. was condemned by Beijing. It was seen as adding fuel to protests which have paralyzed the ex-English territory last year. Efforts by countries like the U.K. to offer asylum and even a path to citizenship to Hongkongers who will flee when the law comes into effect also sparked protests from China. Hong Kong also reportedly surfaced in the recent meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and China’s diplomat and Politburo member Yang Jiechi at Hawaii.
As a core interest, China will expectedly not budge on Hong Kong. The more pressure it faces, the more it will dig in. Neither the threat of foreign sanctions nor the prospect of flight capital and talent exodus will compel it to yield. Beijing is willing to bite the bullet because it thinks it can weather the storm. Other countries’ interest in Hong Kong are largely economic, ephemeral and up for compromise. Its stand is not. If stripping Hong Kong of its special trade status engenders more reliance to mainland, it would even be a boon to Beijing. Unlike the 1997 handover, China is now in a far better economic position to withstand a tempest. It is now in the longer end of the stick, one that it increasingly resorts to as part of its broader economic statecraft. Besides, it calculates that investors and businesses would not take drastic actions and instead adopt a wait-and-see, evaluating how the national security law would be enforced and how will it affect their commercial interests. It also thinks U.K is more eager to get a new economic agreement post-Brexit and U.S. is keen to see a “phase two” trade deal. If China was able to bounce back from Tiananmen and was able to win over the world of its commitment to honor Hong Kong’s autonomy post-1997, it thinks it can survive this one too.
But China should not bask on its strength and overlook the underlying factors behind the growing umbrage over its policy in Hong Kong, both within and outside the city. While Shanghai and Shenzhen are eclipsing Hong Kong, the city’s longstanding global and regional ties, storied cosmopolitan vibe, and independent institutions continue to afford it numerous advantages absent in the mainland. If the national security law will upend these, competitors from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore will seize on the opportunity. The diminution of Hong Kong’s autonomy will unsettle markets and influence attitudes towards Chinese capital in the West. The corrosion of the “One Country, Two Systems” concept will also not bode well for China’s long-term aspirations to reunite Taiwan into its fold. Finally, draconian measures may only further alienate the people of Hong Kong, especially its youth. Given all these, Beijing should be wise on how to proceed with the contentious law.
This article was also published at Analyzing War