China has never given a very strong impression that it respected the autonomy of Hong Kong, but lately it has dispensed with all discretion. The previous arrangement, called “one country, two systems,” suddenly appears to be headed to oblivion. A terrible and decisive moment is fast approaching—one that could determine the destiny and liberty of millions of Hongkongers, and the scope of China’s ambitions.
Hong Kong officially reverted to Chinese authority in 1997, but the former British colony was supposed to retain considerable autonomy for at least fifty years. Since the handover, however, the Chinese Communist Party has meddled more and more in the territory’s affairs, and steadily eroded its liberties. At this moment, Beijing seems intent on exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic—and the various preoccupations of the president of the American superpower—to negate the arrangement and assert its dominance over Hong Kong’s “system” once and for all.
There are at least two salient questions to ask about Hong Kong: First, what exactly is happening there; and second, what, if anything, can be done about it? It is not so difficult to sort out what is happening; China appears to be in the beginning stages of undermining the status of Hong Kong as a semiautonomous city. But it remains unclear what friends of that vulnerable city are actually doing or planning to do. Let’s take these questions in order.
In open defiance of the Sino-British Joint Declaration that commits China to respecting Hong Kong’s autonomy and its common-law inheritance, the annual session of China’s rubber-stamp legislature has passed new national security laws designed to criminalize anti-Chinese politics in the enclave. The draconian national security legislation equips Beijing to bypass the territory’s own parliament to crack down on any activity it deems seditious. This undermines Hong Kong’s distinct liberal culture and its independent judiciary.
China’s attempted subversion of Hong Kong has reignited protests that reached a boil over last year’s now-revoked extradition bill. Then, Hongkongers demonstrated against Beijing’s rule-by-diktat that sought the arrest and extradition of citizens to the Chinese mainland without recourse to the legal protections afforded in the territory. After months of protests in which millions of Hong Kong citizens hoisted aloft the American flag and sang the American national anthem to signal their commitment to freedom, the Communist authorities in Beijing relented.
Unfortunately, this time may be different. Even as pro-democracy demonstrators march in defense of their rights and liberties, Beijing maintains that a foreign plot is afoot to undermine the Communist Party. (You’ll notice that this assertion is consistent with the Chinese propaganda narrative that the pandemic was conceived as a bioweapon by the United States to shore up its global primacy.) Next week, on the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Hong Kong is even primed to pass a law stifling dissent of the Chinese regime. Prison sentences will be handed down for any “disrespect” shown toward China’s national anthem.
In recognition of the fact that this move undermines Hong Kong’s distinct culture of free speech and its independent judiciary, Secretary of State Pompeo pronounced it a “death knell” for the city-state. He declared that “facts on the ground” show Hong Kong is no longer autonomous. The State Department has thus certified that Hong Kong no longer warrants special treatment under U.S. law. It is now up to President Trump to act on that certification by revoking the special trade status that Hong Kong has enjoyed since 1997, which confers benefits such as an expedited visa process not extended to mainland China.
Meanwhile, the nationalistic Chinese newspaper Global Times—an organ of the CCP—has announced that this crisis will prove a “death knell” only for “U.S. interference in Hong Kong affairs.”
The imposition of direct Communist Party rule upon Hong Kong is occurring against the backdrop of a distracted world and a new era of authoritarian assertiveness. As I recently outlined in The Bulwark, the global progress toward free and open societies that had been a stupendous feature of the latter half of the twentieth century has stalled and reversed in the twenty-first. If the Chinese authorities have their way, as seems very likely, Hong Kong will be the next victim in the authoritarian march.
It is fanciful to believe the Communist Party’s grip on the territory can be loosened, let alone relinquished, without massive countervailing force. Against such a behemoth imperial power that China has become––with a GDP nearing that of the United States––it is difficult to conceive of measures short of war that would salvage Hong Kong.
Nonetheless, painful consequences can be imposed on China. After revoking Hong Kong’s special trade status, President Trump should impose Magnitsky-style sanctions on officials who abuse human rights in Hong Kong. The U.S. government should also follow the lead of the British government, which has made the “unprecedented” pledge to expand visa rights for British National (Overseas) passport holders. The Home Office has clarified that although only 350,000 Hong Kong residents hold valid BNO passports, the pledge will apply to anyone eligible and currently living in Hong Kong, of which there are nearly 3 million. The United States ought to share some of the burden and glory of this initiative by opening its doors to Hong Kong’s huddled masses who yearn to continue breathing free outside of Beijing’s captive colony. The gesture would signal solidarity with victims of a brutish tyranny while drawing into the American orbit citizens with surplus human capital and weaned on the language of liberty.
Alas, none of this will spare Hong Kong from the predations the Chinese Communist Party has in store for it. But this crisis furnishes an opportunity to devise a coordinated strategy, involving not just the great and once-great powers of the West but also the free countries in the region itself, to contain Chinese influence and deter Chinese ambition. Such a strategy must be based on a sober assessment of the limits of our power and the growth of Chinese power. It must take stock of the risks and costs of warlike action, even as it understands that not just economic but military and diplomatic behavior will be needed to prevail in this new cold war.
It is impossible, on a shrewd analysis, to ignore the fundamentally divergent interests and beliefs between the People’s Republic and a world order based on liberty. The strategic imperative in this era of renewed great power competition is to understand that although American-led alliances have suffered recently through malign neglect, they are not fated to diminish, and their value will endure. Just as there is nothing ineluctable about the long-term continuation of the Pax Americana, the future of Asia must not be a matter for China’s dictatorship alone to decide.
It used to be said by anti-Communists behind the Iron Curtain that they were citizens of “the West” trapped in “the East.” The enterprising citizens of Hong Kong, nervously anticipating the future course of their city, must be feeling the weight and force of that point more than ever. Just as they have identified with our cause, we must strive to make their cause our own.