China has signalled its intention to impose a new security law on Hong Kong, a move that pro-democracy activists claim would spell the end of ‘one country, two systems’.
Since it was returned to Chinese authority by the British government in 1997, the island has operated under this principle, enshrined in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law. This permits far greater freedom of speech and assembly than in mainland China, as well as a promise (as yet unfulfilled) of democratic elections by universal suffrage. Last year’s wave of pro-democracy protests were campaigning for this goal, among other things.
But the Basic Law also promises to enact a security law to prohibit ‘treason, secession and sedition’. 500,000 Hong Kongers protested the last attempt to pass such a law, in 2003. Now, in a move widely seen as a response to the 2019 protests, China looks as though it may impose a security law on the island.
‘One country, two systems’ was only ever agreed for 50 years after handover, and Hong Kong’s governance after 2047 was not spelled out. Perhaps the British were sufficiently confident in 1997 of inexorable global convergence on liberal democracy that they assumed by that point China would have become more like Hong Kong, rather than vice versa.
Hindsight is a fine thing. A 2014 Chinese report asserted China’s total authority over Hong Kong, heightening already-existing fears that ‘one country, two systems’ wouldn’t make it even to 2047. (The Xi administration has also stated plans to reabsorb Taiwan). Now, with the world paralysed by coronavirus, China appears keen not to let a global crisis go to waste and is advancing the Xi agenda of ‘Chinese reunification’.
Trump has already indicated that such a move will be seen as a serious provocation. Last year, he ratified an Act requiring the US to certify at least annually that Hong Kong retained enough autonomy to justify favoured US trading terms, essential for its status as a world financial centre.
In the UK, former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten said the British government ‘should tell China this is outrageous’. But to date, the British response to the protests, or Chinese encroachments on the 1997 handover terms, has been mild. Judging by its handling of Huawei and 5G, our government has sought to balance a need for China’s money and manufacturing against concerns about its increasingly expansionary ambitions.
Tom Tugendhat, Chair of the British Government’s Foreign Affairs Committee (which has been expressing concerns about China for some time now), tweeted yesterday that if China violates the Sino-British Joint Declaration by imposing a security law, the UK should allow Hong Kong residents with British national (overseas) status to evacuate to Britain. This implies that British nationals merit protection from Chinese governance, which would signal an end to British soft-pedalling of the increasingly obvious incompatibility of Western democracy with the authoritarian Chinese regime.
Reuters reports a former US envoy to Asia reading China’s move on Hong Kong as an effort to recover from the loss of face that came with being blamed for coronavirus. If so, this amour propre may turn out to be China’s tragic flaw. China’s economic rise has been enabled in part by Western elites’ self-serving willingness to overlook its authoritarian nature in the interests of trade. If China moves to an intolerably overt expansionism in an effort to salve its wounded dignity, this could trigger more substantial pushback as the fiction of liberal convergence (or at least mutually profitable coexistence) becomes publicly unsustainable.