Hong Kong is in the throes of massive street protests, with the police using disproportionate force to curb demonstrators. The protests are reminiscent of the 2019 pro-democracy protests, triggered by an extradition law. The Wuhan coronavirus pandemic halted the demonstrations, but these broke out again early this year over another law that criminalised “mocking” China’s national anthem and brought in a three-year imprisonment provision for “whistling” or “booing” while the anthem is played.
Hong Kong became a colony of the UK in 1898 after the Opium Wars when Britain obtained a
99-year lease on the territory. Hong Kong grew into a cosmopolitan financial hub since the time it was a British colony. The UK handed the territory back to China under an agreement signed in 1997. Under this agreement, Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) of the People’s Republic of China, adhering to the concept of “one country, two systems”.
Upping the ante recently, the National People’s Congress passed an anti-sedition law, provoking fears of Chinese security agencies interfering in Hong Kong and unleashing a wave of oppressive measures. The new law is expected to subvert Hong Kong’s de facto Constitution, known as the Basic Law. It has heightened fears that may also lead to emigration of wealthy professionals from Hong Kong. There is apprehension that China will use the new laws to seize wealth from residents and crush democracy.
The new law seeks to end the “one country, two systems” concept wherein Hong Kong enjoyed relative autonomy from China’s authoritarian communist rule, maintaining a separate governing and economic system. A similar Bill placed in the Hong Kong Legislative Council in 2003 was rejected outright after mass protests. In China such laws are routinely used to violently suppress dissent.
Hong Kong’s crucial role as a portal for global financial transactions and acquisition of technology was useful for China’s rise as an economic power. Trade statistics give separate figures for China and Hong Kong and the city enjoyed certain privileges not accorded to mainland China. A world distracted by the Wuhan virus pandemic has provided cover for China to step up its plan and annex Hong Kong fully, integrating it with the authoritarian communist laws applicable on mainland China.
The Donald Trump administration has reacted strongly against the law. The ongoing trade war, deaths due to coronavirus, the pandemic-induced economic depression and the current protests in several cities in the US against the murder of a black person by a Minneapolis police officer have caused enormous popular anger in the US. US President Trump has announced his country’s withdrawal from the WHO and a plan to expel Chinese students who are sponsored by China’s PLA and engaged in theft of IPR. The tough posturing on China by the US President is with an eye on the November presidential election and his falling popularity ratings.
US President Trump has announced a review of all laws that allow Hong Kong tariff privileges, special status as a financial hub and preferential export controls on dual-use technologies. Meanwhile, China has warned that US retaliation will have consequences. China has pointed out that the US enjoys a $31 billion trade surplus in its trade turnover with Hong Kong and over 85,000 thousand Americans live and work in the financial hub.
China’s actions have come under criticism by several countries. Australia, Canada, the UK and US have issued a joint statement saying, “China’s decision to impose the new national security law on Hong Kong lies in direct conflict with its international obligations.” They called on China to find a “mutually acceptable accommodation” with the government and people of Hong Kong. The UN Security Council discussed the Hong Kong issue in a closed-door meeting, since any open session will be blocked by China, using its veto.
Germany too has issued a critical statement on behalf of the EU. President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan has promised to help Hong Kong residents. She announced over Twitter, “We will not sit back and watch while Hong Kong’s freedom, democracy and human rights are eroded.” India has so far not reacted officially and China’s attempt to create a border incident in Ladakh is a signal to avoid any anti-Chinese move at the WHO or join the Western camp to criticise China. For India, the options are open.
China maintains that Hong Kong is entirely its internal matter, while the US and UK aver that China is violating international commitments not to change the status of Hong Kong. China’s Prime Minister Le Keqiang and Finance Minister Wang Yi have argued that the new law will further strengthen the “one country, two systems” without affecting Hong Kong’s autonomy and apply to only those who indulge in terrorism or separatism. There are few takers for these arguments since China has described Hong Kong’s protests for democracy as the work of “terrorists” and foreign interference.
The war of words and threats of retaliation are likely to prolong the trade war between China and the US. China’s move to tighten control over Hong Kong is driven by its anxiety over the rising democratic aspirations of a new generation in Hong Kong that opposes the communist system. For China, preserving the communist system and CCP’s absolute power is the foremost national priority. China is also worried about the domino effect of Hong Kong asserting its autonomy on Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet, apart from its impact on its people. Global opinion has turned against communist China’s Janus-faced policies. The main reason, however, is that China considers itself strong enough now to withstand the negative reaction, as the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic provides it cover for riding out any retaliation for some time.
Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty
Former Ambassador, Ex-Secretary in MEA and currently a Visiting Fellow at ORF, Delhi