Hong Kong is burning again. A new round of anti-mainland unrest has started in Hong Kong as opposition has gathered momentum against the anthem bill, which would criminalise insulting China’s national anthem, and the security law, which many fear will take away Hong Kong of basic freedoms. This is the second stage of these protests which were fuelled last year by an extradition law which was later scrapped under pressure.
In 1997, under the principle of “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong became part of China with an understanding that it would enjoy “a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs” for 50 years. That very principle came under challenge with an extradition law last year that would have allowed extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China. There was a massive backlash against this law as hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets to protest against the extradition bill which they feared would be used to target political dissidents. And then in a stunning rebuke to the Communist Party’s handling of the Hong Kong crisis, pro-democracy forces made massive gains in local elections held last year in November with pro democracy councillors getting the control of 17 of the 18 district councils in an election that saw an unprecedented voter turnout of more than 71%.
But for Xi, Hong Kong is important. He held the Hong Kong portfolio on the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee before he became China’s de facto emperor. He seems to have an implicit faith in his unyielding tough stance, and as he has centralised power to an unprecedented level, there is no one else to share any blame for the policies enunciated by Xi. Not surprisingly, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had underlined that “no matter what happens, Hong Kong is a part of China” and warned that “any attempt to mess up Hong Kong, or even damage its prosperity and stability, will not succeed.”
And so after a few months of lull, Xi is back with a new security law proposed for Hong Kong which would ban treason, secession, sedition and subversion which China argues is required to combat violent protests that have grown in the territory. This is an extraordinary assertion as the original protests were a response to China going back on its 1997 commitment to the people of Hong Kong. But in the age of Xi, this does not matter. What matters is an assertion of Chinese authority on all those who defy it.
At a time when China is facing global pressure and indignation over its mismanagement of the initial stages of coronavirus, tightening screws on Hong Kong gives Xi Jinping a nationalistic boost and potentially rallies the nation around the flag.
At a time when China is facing global pressure and indignation over its mismanagement of the initial stages of coronavirus, tightening screws on Hong Kong gives Xi Jinping a nationalistic boost and potentially rallies the nation around the flag. This despite growing global condemnation of Chinese moves vis-a-vis Hong Kong. While countries like the UK, Canada and Australia have publicly expressed their concerns, the US has upped the ante with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certifying to the US Congress that “no reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground” and that the new security law was “only the latest in a series of actions that fundamentally undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms.” This can potentially pave the way for the US Congress revoking Hong Kong’s special trade status which it enjoys under the US law.
US President has announced that he was beginning the process to end preferential treatment for Hong Kong when it comes to trade and travel. Arguing that “China has replaced One Country, Two Systems with One Country, One System,” Trump has declared that sanctions would be imposed on Chinese and Hong Kong officials who were believed by Washington to be working towards eroding the territory’s autonomous status as well as suspending the entry of foreign nationals from China identified by the US as potential security risks.
New Delhi’s firm military and diplomatic posturing has made it clear to Beijing that India is in for the long haul.
But it is unlikely to deter the Communist Party of China (CPC) from making its moves in Hong Kong. While there might be economic costs to China due to Washington’s moves, for the CPC it is imperative that it is seen as managing the crisis in Hong Kong forcefully. Any weakness in Hong Kong can be seen as a precursor to pro-democracy sentiment elsewhere on the mainland. And at a time when Chinese economy has slowed down and unemployment levels are at an unprecedented level, the basic bargain between economic prosperity and political legitimacy of the CPC is being threatened like never before. The situation is Taiwan has already become precarious with the COVID-19 pandemic acting as a new springboard for Taiwan’s global integration much to Beijing’s discomfiture.
So it is not surprising that as the situation in Hong Kong has become more precarious, Beijing has dialled down the rhetoric on the Indian border tensions with Chinese Ambassador Sun Weidong underlining that China and India should never let their differences shadow the overall bilateral ties and must enhance mutual trust. New Delhi’s firm military and diplomatic posturing has made it clear to Beijing that India is in for the long haul. Given its own problems at home and the focus on Hong Kong over the coming days, de-escalation on its borders with India suits China well.
But make no mistake; China under Xi’s leadership is one of the most assertive and aggressive powers the world has encountered in a long time. Hong Kong’s woes are only likely to get worse and India should be prepared for a long protracted tussle with a neighbouring power that is revisionist to the core.
The author is the director of studies and head strategic studies programme at ORF. View expressed are personal.