Hong Kong police recently came for 81-year-old Martin Lee. He was charged with helping organize three illegal rallies last year, including one about 1.7 million Hong Kongers joined. Another 14 democracy leaders and protest advocates were arrested on similar complaints. The Chinese foreign ministry responded to U.S. and British criticism by accusing those governments of acting to “whitewash, condone and exonerate the anti-China troublemakers in Hong Kong.”
The latest action was conducted with the protest movement enfeebled by the coronavirus pandemic. Although the government of Hong Kong claimed to be in charge, few observers doubted that the orders to act came from Beijing through its local representative. Although the People’s Republic of China claims that the Special Administrative Region comes under the “one country, two systems” rubric, Hong Kong authorities recently declared that the PRC office could “supervise” local affairs, taking another step toward treating the former British colony as any other province. China’s representative has attacked protestors as a “political virus” and charged pro-democracy legislators with “malicious filibustering” and “dirty tricks.”
Many residents feared this day when the United Kingdom turned the territory back to China in 1997. The Basic Law provides for autonomy, which the PRC guaranteed for 50 years. However, there were early warnings: in 2003, the SAR government introduced repressive national security legislation, which it shelved after large protests.
The PRC’s reticence ebbed over time. Beijing was particularly displeased with 2014’s “umbrella protests” that pressed for full democracy and resulting deadlock in the Legislative Council. Subsequently, China kidnapped publishers and others from Hong Kong, without consequence.
Beijing publicly intervened more often, forcing the local authorities to bar some democracy advocates from running for legislative office. It also pressed the executive to advance repressive legislation, such as criminalizing insults to China’s national anthem. When massive protests erupted last year in response to extradition legislation that would legally transfer Hong Kongers to the mainland, the Xi government took a hardline advocating their suppression.
Eric Cheung of the University of Hong Kong warned of “the death of the ‘two systems’,” charging that “It is quite clear that they are now bringing the mainland system, the mainland idea of supervision and rule of law, here.” Reacting to international criticism, Xi opined during a December visit to nearby Macau: “With the return of Hong Kong and Macau, the handling of affairs in the two Special Administrative Regions is strictly China’s internal affairs.” The following month the central government replaced the head of the local office, indicating Beijing’s dissatisfaction as the streets turned into battlegrounds.
The PRC’s increasingly authoritarian approach matches policy on the mainland. The Beijing authorities also may have abandoned a lighter approach in the SAR because they realized that they have lost the hearts and minds of Hong Kongers. Last year’s decisive electoral victory for democracy advocates in district elections demonstrated that the silent majority was for a liberal Hong Kong. A poll last June found that only 11 percent of residents considered themselves to be Chinese.
The change in Hong Kong also has ominous implications for Taiwan. The PRC leadership once sought to entice Taipei into a political embrace by promising to respect a similar “one country, two systems” arrangement. Watching the steady assault on Hong Kong’s autonomy and rule of law has drained the concept of any meaning for Taiwanese.
Alas, the U.S. has few options regarding Hong Kong’s status. The SAR is indisputably Chinese territory. The increasingly rapid abandonment of autonomy violates the territory’s Basic Law and 1985 Sino-British Declaration underlying the turnover, but there is no enforcement mechanism, especially by the U.S.
Washington certainly won’t go to war over the issue. In the midst of the trade fight Trump isn’t likely to sanction Beijing. And doing so would not change PRC behavior. Indeed, sanctions have failed in every case the administration has employed them. Nor would the U.S. yield under comparable circumstances.
The Hong Kong Policy Act authorizes differential trade treatment of the mainland and Hong Kong so long as they are governed separately. Washington could declare them to be one and the same and thereby subject the territory to China’s less favorable rules, but that would mostly punish Hong Kongers, not the Xi government.
The Trump administration should consult with Hong Kong residents generally as well as democracy advocates specifically about what they desire. Washington also should talk with Asian and European friends and allies. Criticism of China is on the rise, especially after the coronavirus debacle. Coordinated action has the best chance of achieving results both positive and practical.
This is a conversation that should be ongoing. What to do as the PRC increases pressure on Taiwan? How to respond to bullying of companies over their references to and policies toward Taiwan? Can anything be done to improve human rights in China?
What trade and investment restrictions are necessary for public and private security? How to best maintain free navigation in areas where Beijing has made extravagant territorial claims? In all of these, the U.S. is not the only interested party.
American engagement with the PRC over the last nearly five decades has not failed. Although contact has not turned China into a liberal Western-style state, the country abandoned Maoist tyranny. For years looser authoritarian controls allowed dramatically greater personal autonomy and careful, largely veiled dissent.
President Xi Jinping is advancing into the past with a society-wide crackdown. Washington should look for ways to help empower China’s people, especially to allow through the information they need to choose their future.
In the meantime, people of goodwill should rally to Hong Kong’s defense. If the PRC wants to play a leading international role it should fulfill its international obligations. Especially to respect the autonomy and liberty of people it insists are its own.