international affairs

Hong Kong’s Independence May Not Survive the Pandemic

Pro-democracy lawmaker Ted Hui Chi-fung is removed by security during a scuffle with pro-Beijing lawmakers at the House Committee’s election of vice-chairpersons, presided by pro-Beijing lawmaker Starry Lee Wai-King at the Legislative Council on May 22, 2020, in Hong Kong. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said on Friday during the National People’s Congress that Beijing would establish a sound legal system and enforcement mechanism for safeguarding national security in Hong Kong. Photo: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

The Chinese Communist Party has issued a resolution to promulgate a new national security law for Hong Kong, bypassing the city’s legislature, which threatens to radically curtail the city’s independence and throttle its pro-democracy movement.

The intent of the law, which was introduced on Friday at the opening of the annual session of the National People’s Congress, is to “prevent, frustrate, and punish any secessionist or subversive activity, the organizing of terrorist acts, and other acts that seriously threaten national security, as well as activities of foreign and external interference in Hong Kong.” It requires Hong Kong’s government to “establish an organization and enforcement mechanism to protect national security,” but also empowers Beijing’s national security authorities to “set up organizations in Hong Kong to fulfill their responsibilities” — meaning that mainland agents will be allowed to operate in the city.

The broad references to secessionism, “subversive activity,” “other acts,” and “foreign and external interference” is the kind of authoritarian boilerplate that would give officials in Beijing the power to arrest pretty much any Hong Konger they don’t like. Hong Kong democrats are rightly concerned that the party will use it as a “one-size-fits-all” charge to jail activists on trumped-up allegations, just as they are known to do on the mainland.

Wang Chen, vice-chairman of the NPC’s Standing Committee, claimed that the law would help China implement the “one country, two systems” principle that has governed Hong Kong’s relationship with mainland China since its handover from the U.K. in 1997. Most Hong Kong watchers, however, say it could effectively spell the end of that system, which Chinese president Xi Jinping has already done much to erode since taking power in 2012. Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, loathed by pro-democracy activists as a puppet of Beijing, has expressed “full support” for the law and will happily enforce it. Even if Lam were not so compliant, the central government could make Hong Kong’s increasingly limited independence dependent on its government enforcing the law and enacting its own national security legislation that conforms with it.

The timing of this decision reflects an atmosphere of both danger and opportunity for Beijing. The law is a thinly veiled challenge to the pro-democracy protest movement that launched in Hong Kong last summer. The COVID-19 pandemic put a significant damper on that movement but did not snuff it out entirely. Pro-democracy activists have been organizing an effort to win a majority in legislative elections set for September and block all bills originating from Beijing, but the new proposed law, which could be passed as early as June, would tighten China’s grip on the territory before they get the chance. Beijing might also use the law to harass and arrest activists, hobble the campaigns, and invalidate the candidacies of pro-democracy candidates.

Meanwhile, Xi is cognizant of the pandemic’s impact on the Chinese economy. In a striking parallel to his American counterpart, Donald Trump, the paranoid Xi sees his legitimacy and political survival resting on his ability to deliver consistently high levels of economic growth. The virus has kneecapped the workforce in China just as it has in other countries — and Beijing is now trying to contain a new outbreak of COVID-19 in the northeastern province of Jilin. China’s economy is still expected to grow this year, but at a much lower rate than in recent years. For the first time in decades, the government announced at the opening of the National People’s Congress that it would not set an annual growth target this year, owing to the massive uncertainty in the global economy.

That’s the fear. The opportunity, of course, is that the virus has also hobbled China’s main adversaries and competitors, particularly the U.S., leaving them poorly positioned to respond effectively to anything China does. After effectively unleashing the virus on the world through its botched response and lack of transparency early in the crisis, Xi’s government has hardly tried to conceal that it intends to leverage this crisis to its advantage by recovering faster than the West and emerging from the pandemic stronger than its rivals. The conspiracy theory that China deliberately engineered the pandemic is far too generous in its assessment of any government’s ability to pull off such a scheme, but Xi is not letting the crisis go to waste.

As far as Hong Kong is concerned, the pandemic serves as a diversion, pulling attention from China’s bad acts and making it hard for the international community to muster any coherent response. For another example, the ongoing mass internment and cultural genocide of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Western China has been almost entirely forgotten by the rest of the world, which was just starting to pay attention when the pandemic hit. The CCP has been planning to crack down on Hong Kong’s democratic activists and curtail its independence for months (if not years), but has been biding its time. Today, the U.S. and Europe are in chaos, fighting public-health and economic crises as well as destabilizing political and social divisions; it’s the perfect moment for China to make moves it couldn’t be sure of getting away with under normal circumstances.

Beijing’s decision to effectively end any semblance of independence for Hong Kong has not passed unnoticed. The move has drawn international condemnation, while the Trump administration has promised a strong response — but how strongly can Washington really respond? Limited leverage over Beijing has been a sticking point in Trump’s China policy over the past four years, and now the U.S. has even less leverage than before.

The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, passed by Congress last fall, requires the secretary of State to certify annually whether Hong Kong remains sufficiently autonomous from China to merit the special status it currently enjoys in terms of trade and visas. Mike Pompeo was supposed to report to Congress on that certification a few weeks ago, but held off until after the National People’s Congress summit, perhaps anticipating a move like this. The administration may now decline to certify Hong Kong’s autonomy, which would open up the possibility of limiting or removing its special trade status as well as imposing sanctions on Chinese officials or institutions involved in limiting its independence.

The trouble with this response is that it does little to hit Beijing where it hurts. Revoking Hong Kong’s trade privileges would do more harm to Hong Kongers than to the Chinese government. It would also impact the many U.S. businesses involved in the roughly $38 billion of annual trade between the U.S. and Hong Kong and those that have regional headquarters there. And if sanctions work as well in China as they have in, say, Russia, the Chinese targets of those sanctions have less than nothing to fear from them. Trump’s other potential avenue for retaliation would be to abandon the preliminary trade agreement the two countries reached in January. But imposing tariffs on China to punish it over Hong Kong would raise costs for U.S. businesses and consumers in the midst of a historic downturn, which could be politically suicidal for Trump.

China surely calculated these risks in its decision to move ahead with the national security law and concluded, probably correctly, that the U.S. can’t afford to mount a meaningful retaliation right now. At worst, it has determined that the economic cost of diminishing Hong Kong’s status as a global financial center is lower than the political cost of it remaining a safe haven for pro-democracy agitators. And it’s not like international capital is simply going to cut China off over this, any more than the United Arab Emirates’ abysmal human rights record has deterred banks from setting up shop in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Hong Kong’s role as a global financial hub may be diminished if it becomes just another Chinese city, but it probably won’t disappear entirely.

The only way the U.S. might be able to fight back against Xi’s consolidation of power in Hong Kong (and in general) would be by coordinating a multilateral response among the dozens of rich and middle-income countries China depends on to buy its goods. Trump, of course, doesn’t understand the core concept of multilateralism at all, so U.S. global leadership is at a historic nadir, while China’s is on the rise.

Despite being plausibly at fault for the COVID-19 pandemic, China has actually managed to score a series of propaganda victories from it, all enabled by the Trump administration’s flailing, posturing, and blame-shifting. For example, after Trump reportedly tried to buy out a German drug company and have it make vaccines for the U.S. exclusively, then suspended and threatened to permanently cut off U.S. funding for the World Health Organization, Xi announced last week that China would make any vaccine it develops universally available and pledged $2 billion in new funding to the WHO.

China’s effort to buy the world’s goodwill might not succeed; its diplomatic problems can’t all be solved with propaganda and PR. But it’s practically impossible for the U.S. to lead an effective pressure campaign against a superpower that is more engaged with the international community than it is. So the U.S. is losing the propaganda war with China, even as China engages in increasingly destructive authoritarian behavior. And if anyone in Washington is thinking, “Well, hey, if things really go south we can easily beat China in a shooting war” — in nearly every war game against China the Pentagon has conducted in the past ten years, the U.S. has lost.

Hong Kong’s Independence May Not Survive the Pandemic