by Mary Harrington
Friday, 22
May 2020
Explainer
10:12

China’s amour propre has become its tragic flaw

Western elites won't turn a blind eye to the HK security law
by Mary Harrington
Xi Jinping is applauded as he arrives at the National People’s Congress. Credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

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.

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Jonathan Cheng
Jonathan Cheng
2 years ago

Living in Hong Kong, the move by China is a very welcome breath of fresh air. Here’s why:

Hong Kong has had a lacuna in its legal system, namely a complete lack of laws protecting national security. Article 23 in the Basic Law obliged the legislative council (“Legco”) to come up with such a law/laws. However, 23 years into the Basic law, and Legco has repeatedly failed to enact such a crucial law. As a result, Hong Kong has continued to be buffeted by influence of all sorts, it being such an geopolitically interesting chess piece.

For easy reference as one of many examples, you can see the money that has moved over time into the city by entities such as the National Endowment for Democracy (https://www.ned.org/region/….

2019 was truly the annus horribilis for Hong Kong. The city suffered tremendously under the societal upheaval prior to getting hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Again for easy reference, the “other side” of the story, i.e. what you won’t read in mainstream news outlets, has been well documented in places such as this (excuse the grammatical errors): https://www.truth-hk.com/

For the average Hong Konger, we have been terrorised by an unprecedented oppression of opinions. Unfortunate civilians have been brutally beaten, immolated, doxxed, had their children threatened, simply because they dared differ from the cause célèbre of revolution and/or independence. As the main road leading to one of the largest most important hospitals in Hong Kong was blocked by the protestors/rioters, I participated with over 100 local residents in clearing the brick and cement roadblock one fine weekend day, only to have (for the first time) had a molotov cocktail land 10 feet from me thrown by the rioters on an adjacent overpass. This was totally unprovoked, unless clearing a blocked street warranted attack by a deadly weapon.

Civilians, and sadly including pregnant women, elderly ladies, as well as people of all ages and backgrounds, have been cowed by this unfamiliar and terrifying violence. Entire highway systems were blockaded, one of the finest rail systems in the world systematically vandalised and crippled, universities taken over as ammunitions factories. Shops were smashed in for not supporting the “yellow” movement, police living quarters were attacked with missiles of brick and molotov cocktails landing into children’s bedrooms.

Thus what I describe, while it doesn’t fit the neat narrative of “western liberal democracy – good; anything else – bad”, is nevertheless the truth.

There are ample reasons for the populace to be unhappy: with China, with the HK government, with societal inequalities. For these reasons and more, protests are not only warranted, but abundantly allowed, as these rights have been guaranteed by the HK government and exercised healthily by protestors ever since 1997. This being said, it should not be glossed over, that China now is reacting to a very valid issue, that the national security loop hole has been abused to the detriment of Hong Kong and its people, and if HK’s Legco is abdicating its responsibilities under law to plug the loophole, it is China’s duty to do so, and in a way allowed and prescribed by the Basic Law (article 18, and Annex III…for easy reference the entire document is linked here: https://www.basiclaw.gov.hk… ).

It might be useful context for readers here to know, that there is a huge and collective sigh of relief in Hong Kong, that China has finally taken this conclusive step to help Hong Kong by introducing this much needed and much delayed national security legislation. We feel that there is hope that the unfettered oppression by agitators may be stopped, that the law will hold wrongdoers to account, and that this can cut off foreign influence, insofar as there is any, and let Hong Kong alone to evolve by itself, thank you very much.

Those who need fear are those involved in: treason, secession, sedition or subversion, or terrorism.

If the dear reader still thinks this is “China – bad”, well at least you have now done so having heard at least one first hand account that hopes to provide some context. Or you may want to demonstrate why Hong Kong people alone do not deserve a national security law when every other country and peoples have had it.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
2 years ago

I have every sympathy for the people of HK but this was always going to happen sooner or later. Everyone knew the ‘One country, two systems’ thing was a nonsense that would be dispensed with at a time of China’s choosing.

I don’t really see what the US or anyone else can do about it. Surely HK is part of China and China can impose its laws etc as it sees fit.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
2 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Well, we can all start by boycotting anything ‘Made in China’.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
2 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Well, not necessarily. The British belief that by the time 2047 came around mainland China would have liberalized wasn’t ridiculously utopian and it may not even have been wrong. If COVID-19 was the Chinese Communist regime’s Chernobyl moment it may soon be confined to the garbage bin of history, and mainland China will look more like Hong Kong rather than the opposite. I’m not a Sinologist, so I don’t know. No-one is going to risk a nuclear war over this, but I suspect Trump, who hasn’t been neutered by the Chi-Coms like so many of the other Western so-called leaders, will likely at least impose sanctions on the PRC if they do try to snuff out Hong Kong’s freedoms. I was ashamed to be a Canadian yesterday when our limp-wristed Foreign Affairs Minister, François-Philippe Champagne, wouldn’t even condemn China’s move, although repeatedly asked if he would do so by his interviewer, limiting himself to saying that he views China’s actions with concern. There is a Hong Kong diaspora in many Western countries and they must be very disappointed that there has not been more of a reaction from Western governments to protect the liberties of the people of Hong Kong. Thank you, Mary, for putting a spotlight on this.

David George
David George
2 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Yes Fraser, China can do whatever it pleases; completely disregard binding agreements and international law or overrun independent nations militarily (Taiwan) or via debt peonage – Africa, Asia and the South Pacific.
The question for the rest of the world is are we OK with that.
The best time to have drawn a line in the sand over Chinese imperialism was twenty years ago; the second best time is now.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
2 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

HK has had an unexpectedly good run for its money, 23 years or a generation.
However is it purely coincidental that China is now on putting on the ‘squeeze’, via its Proconsul, Carrie Lam (Cantab)?
Off course its future was settled under Mrs T, back in 1984. As a US Client State, Mrs T had no choice but to follow the diktats of US policy on the Appeasement of China.
This policy dated back to Richard Nixon in the early seventies, and has been studiously followed by every US President since.
It will turn out to be considerably more expensive than its notorious predecessor, Appeasement to Adolph Hitler.
Incidentally back in 1997, the BBC peddled the story that, ‘we’ had to leave because our 99 year Lease had expired. This was arrant nonsense as the Lease only applied to the ‘New Territories’, acquired after the Boxer Rebellion in 1898, and not to HK Island nor to Kowloon.
Viewed dispassionately HK proved to be a wonderful synthesis between Chinese and Anglo Saxon culture. What a pity it is about to be destroyed.

Martin Shepherd
Martin Shepherd
2 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

China has the physical ability to impose laws on Hong Kong, but they will then have signalled to the world that they no longer respect international treaties and will have to accept all the consequences that entails.

Auberon Linx
Auberon Linx
2 years ago

It is hard to say what the Chinese government really thinks about anything, but it seems to me completely unnecessary to invoke China’s supposed loss of face due to Coronavirus to explain its actions in Hong Kong. China has dealt with the crisis relatively well. If anything, it is a failure of countries such as the US which is behind the effort to transfer the blame to China, in order to draw attention from their own incompetence.

The reason why China is tightening the grip on Hong Kong could be much simpler, and dare I say, perfectly rational. Hong Kong is supposed to fully align with the Mainland in 2047. However, the territory is at present growing further apart rather than slowly assimilating. If China waits for 27 more years before doing anything about it, it could find that the drive for independence has escalated to unmanageable proportions. While the pushback is not going to be welcomed, at this point it is almost certain to happen, regardless of what China does or does not do. Under these circumstances, it makes perfect sense to take on temporary pain in order to ensure the future of what no one seriously disputes is its integral part.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
2 years ago
Reply to  Auberon Linx

Presumably your full some praise of China is deliberately provocative?
I assume you are not a CCP stooge, but even so, how can you ignore the overwhelming evidence of what a fetid hell hole China is?
Every Plague from Justinian’s onwards seems to originate in China. What is it about the place that is so toxic? The personal hygiene or lack of, the diet, the climate, public sanitation or what?
One point no one has so far mentioned, is the revolting habit of spitting everywhere. That disgusting practice of emptying lungs, thorax and nasal passages, in a head down movement, ejaculating a large globule of rancid mucous onto the street, with some velocity!
It seems to be perennial problem that has yet to be addressed

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
2 years ago
Reply to  Auberon Linx

Aren’t you being rather generous to China?
All the available evidence points to China as the place of origin of the current Plague.
What must asked is why China. What is unique about China? Why does this not happen for example in India, a country of similar size and population? Perhaps India’s relatively meat free diet plays a part?

.

Jeffrey Shaw
Jeffrey Shaw
2 years ago

“…..so widely misapplied by a media less interested in informing than in setting the boundaries of opinion.” Unfortunately – this is what “journalism” has become on a global basis. There is no “reporting” of news anymore and there essentially has been none for many years now. “Journalist,” as they delight in calling themselves – have descended into a cadre of street thugs enforcing their own belief structures onto a population of readers/viewers, whose very freedom, not to mention liberty – they now seek to control.

David Chulk
David Chulk
2 years ago

The CCP never had any intention of keeping to any agreement over Hong Kong. The CCP can be very patient waiting for the right moment to strike, which is now.

Ray Hall
Ray Hall
2 years ago

Before the 1997 handover , I used to muse that we should hand out British passports to all the Hong Kongers who wanted one . I thought that the only precondition would be that they stay in Northern Ireland for a few years to help the Loyalist and Nationalist communities overcome their preconceived ideas of each other . I also thought that their presence and industriousness would have been a huge economic boost to that benighted province and after a few years , would have increased the region’s PISA scores.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
2 years ago

I think to be a true polymath you need a huge intellect and a ravenous appetite for knowledge and understanding.The only one I know of at the moment is the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Wiiiams.
Thank God that the human spirit will not allow us to drown in a sea of cold heartless facts, scientific or otherwise exemplified by Dickens’ Mr.Gradgrind. For every John Stuart Mill there is a Beethoven and Shelley, for every Darwin there is a Gerard Manley Hopkins and Saint- Seans and,for every Dawkins there is a John Tavener and Ian McEwan.

Richard Atherton
Richard Atherton
2 years ago

This depressing scenario could also be avoided by making social distancing voluntary. In view of the very low mortality rates for the great majority of people, this would be a very low cost solution.