Between old and new empires, Hong Kong’s fate exposes stakes in Covid-19 era

Anti-government protesters march again Beijing's plans to impose national security legislation in Hong Kong, May 24, 2020.
Anti-government protesters march again Beijing's plans to impose national security legislation in Hong Kong, May 24, 2020. REUTERS - Tyrone Siu

China’s latest move to impose a new security law for Hong Kong has exposed Britain’s weakness on the international stage. But now all eyes are on the US response as the future of the semi-autonomous territory is once again caught in the geopolitical wrangling between the world’s dominant powers.

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On December 21, 1984 – just days after she signed a historic treaty with China on Hong Kong’s future status – British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was asked how did she really “feel” about the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

Thatcher was in Hong Kong, where the reactions to the agreement were less ebullient than in Beijing, where the British prime minister had toasted her Chinese counterpart at a champagne ceremony in the Great Hall of the People following the signing of the historic deal. Small, but symbolic protests had greeted Thatcher’s arrival on the British territory hugging China’s southern coast, with demonstrators denouncing the “sell-out” of the people of Hong Kong.

So when Thatcher was asked about the treaty setting the terms for China’s 1997 takeover, she was on the defensive. “I feel we have done a good job for the people of Hong Kong,” she told reporters. “Just consider what sort of questions you would be asking me now had there been no agreement and a totally unknown future.”

More than 35 years later, the international treaty, which was registered at the UN, establishing the “one country, two systems” principle, is back under the spotlight.

Last week, when China announced plans to impose a new national security law for Hong Kong that, critics say, breaches the territory’s autonomous status, the 1984 Joint Declaration was a talking point on the news agenda.

“One point that many, many Hong Kong people have been rather angry about is that the [British] Foreign Office, and the entire UK government, should be opposing more strongly the way China has been breaching the provisions of the Sino-British Joint Declaration. China has effectively declared that particular document null, void, it doesn’t serve any purpose anymore,” Claudia Mo, a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, told the BBC over the weekend.

It’s a view echoed by Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong who handed over the territory to China in 1997. “I think the Hong Kong people have been betrayed by China, which has proved once again that you can’t trust it,” said Patten in an interview with the British daily, The Times. “The British government should make it clear that what we are seeing is a complete destruction of the Joint Declaration.”

‘Death sentence for Hong Kong’s freedoms’

Patten has led a group of more than 230 prominent parliamentarians and policymakers in 25 countries – including former prime ministers and foreign ministers – who have signed a letter decrying “the unilateral introduction of national security legislation by Beijing in Hong Kong” and calling on governments to “unite to say that this flagrant breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration cannot be tolerated.”

Responding to the initiative by Hong Kong’s last British governor, Dorian Malovic, Asia editor of French daily La Croix, and author of several books on China, conceded, “It’s better than nothing, but it sounds a little desperate. Chris Patten tried his best to push through a more democratic system as much as possible before 1997, but he failed,” noted Malovic in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Back in 1984, the news coverage of the Joint Declaration focused on Britain's failure to take more steps before the handover to secure democracy for Hong Kong’s citizens. These days, an agreement once regarded as a weak compromise is cited in world capitals as a demonstration of Beijing’s disregard for legally binding treaties and the international community’s failure to hold China accountable for its breaches.

Beijing maintains the new law – which bans treason, subversion and sedition – is necessary after months of often-violent pro-democracy protests last year. Chinese authorities portray the protests as a foreign-backed plot to destabilise the motherland and have warned that other nations have no right to interfere in how the international business hub is run.

Critics, however, say the new security measure contravenes the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution adopted under the terms of the Joint Declaration. Article 23 of the Basic Law, states that the “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government”.

An earlier attempt to pass a national security act was dropped in 2003 when it became clear the bill would not pass Hong Kong’s Legislative Council – popularly dubbed “LegCo” – following massive protests.

Beijing has long wanted a security law that would curtail dissent and protests in Hong Kong. But this time, the process adopted by Chinese authorities, by submitting a draft bill on the opening session of the National People’s Congress in Beijing last week, caught everyone by surprise.

“It was a shock. It came directly from Beijing, a draft law before the National People’s Congress is basically rubber-stamping a communist party directive. What frightened lawyers and activists is that it’s a violation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law that’s disregarding Hong Kong’s LegCo,” explained Malovic. “That’s a huge breach of the semi-autonomy of Hong Kong. It’s a death sentence for Hong Kong’s freedoms.”

Defying Covid-19 social distancing measures, protesters took to the streets in Hong Kong on Sunday as law enforcement officials braced for further unrest as the security bill makes its way through an unprecedented legislative process. The National People’s Congress (NPC) is expected to approve the bill on Thursday after which it moves to the NPC’s Standing Committee for approval.

The timing of the move was also noteworthy. “This came as foreign countries are busy coping with the coronavirus and are not looking into the Hong Kong situation. Beijing is giving a signal, ‘we don’t care about anything coming from foreign countries’. China knows it’s strong enough to do what it wants with Hong Kong,” said Malovic.

Freedom, money, but no democracy

Asian and Western democracies have condemned China’s moves to implement the new security law. Following a muted initial reaction, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on Friday issued a joint statement with his Australian and Canadian counterparts that declared, “We are deeply concerned at proposals for introducing legislation related to national security in Hong Kong”.

The statement also noted that the “legally binding Joint Declaration, signed by China and the UK, sets out that Hong Kong will have a high degree of autonomy”. But it offered no details or warnings of action if China breached its legally binding agreement.

The response by Hong Kong’s former colonial power failed to impress pro-democracy activists and analysts. “The UK has done very, very little, even nothing concretely to support people in Hong Kong, to support democracy in Hong Kong,” said Malovic. “Britain is in a mess in the shadow of Brexit. The thinking in London has been, we need Chinese investments, we need deals with the US, we don’t need Europe. Hong Kong people are aware of the cowardice of Britain, they’re under no illusions.”

Hasty, ill-planned exits that set the stage for crises and conflicts for future post-colonial generations have been the legacy of British colonialism. But Malovic notes that the people of Hong Kong also share some responsibility for a long-feared scenario. “The British were very smart. Everybody was free in Hong Kong except there was no democracy – and people didn’t care. I was in Hong Kong a lot in those days and I used to tell my friends people selfishly only care about making money.”

Political consciousness emerged in Hong Kong after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, according to Malovic. But by then, the Joint Declaration underpinning Hong Kong’s handover and future administration was already signed, and Beijing proved to be an unyielding negotiating partner on democratic protections such as universal suffrage for Hong Kong’s residents.

British diplomats have acknowledged the negotiations over enshrining democratic principles that would secure Hong Kong were difficult since London was struggling to maintain close diplomatic and trade ties with Beijing.

"In a case like this in Hong Kong where there is such a disparity in strength between the two sides, between Britain and China, you go for the best you can get, and I take the simple view that half a loaf is better than no bread," Percy Cradock, the UK’s chief negotiator and a former British ambassador to China, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

A double-edged sword

The onus of international responsibility, as ever, falls on the US and with it, the criticisms of failing to respond or overreaction, as the case may be.

Washington’s reaction has been tougher than London’s, with the US forcefully “condemning” China’s move and urging “Beijing to reconsider its disastrous proposal”. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has threatened to respond “very strongly” if China follows through with the new law.

The US also has a new law, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which was passed by Congress in November amid last year’s pro-democracy protests. The law requires the US State Department to determine whether Hong Kong maintains a sufficient degree of autonomy to justify it retaining its special trade status.

“That would be a blow for Hong Kong if the US raised tariffs if it considers Hong Kong another Chinese city. But it’s a double-edged sword since US companies are also making billions in Hong Kong,” said Malovic.

Around 85,000 US citizens lived in Hong Kong in 2018, according to State Department figures, and more than 1,300 US companies operate there, including nearly every major US financial firm. The territory is also a major destination for US legal and accounting services.

Hot, tense summer

Beijing has warned that it would fight back if the US tries to oppose China on the issue, with foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian stating, “The issue of national security legislation for Hong Kong is an internal affair of China. Other nations cannot interfere.”

Zhao is considered an “alpha male” among Beijing’s aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomats, named after a Chinese blockbuster about a commando who kills American baddies with his bare hands. He has also been on the frontline of a Washington-Beijing war of words that deepened since the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan spiralled into a global pandemic.

>> Read more about China’s ‘wolf warrior’ diplomats

Trump has turned China into a campaign issue ahead of the November US presidential election, but it’s a strategy, Malovic warned, that may not serve Hong Kong’s interests.

“It’s useful for Trump and Beijing, but Hong Kong will be the victim because it will be used as a cheap bargaining chip in the US-China war [of words],” said Malovic. “You have the world’s two biggest powers, with two different ideologies, but they are both acting in the same way. The Trump campaign is fed by the common enemy of China just as Beijing uses the US enemy. Trump is using the perfect enemy to ramp up patriotic, nationalist sentiments and Beijing is doing the same. It’s so childish, it would be funny if it was not so dangerous,” said Malovic.

The prospect of escalating unrest and tensions are high in the weeks and months to come. Beijing’s uncompromising positions on Hong Kong have hardened resolve in the pro-democracy camp, fueling a vicious circle of state crackdowns spurring hardliners within the protest movement. It’s a strategy long favoured by autocratic states looking to crush peaceful dissent. Beijing has not yielded on calls by pro-democracy leaders for an independent investigation into the violence during last year’s protests, while Chinese state media focuses on what it calls “terrorist” acts.

The Hong Kong political calendar, meanwhile, is packed with anniversaries and events that draw demonstrations, raising the prospect of a hot, tense summer. These include the June 4 Tiananmen massacre anniversary and the July 1 marches that mark the territory’s 1997 handover. Elections for the Hong Kong Legislative Council are scheduled for September, by which time, the US is expected to move into campaign high gear.

The Covid-19 crisis has already put China under the international spotlight with news headlines on the unmasking of Beijing’s “mask diplomacy,” the aggressive tactics of “wolf warrior” diplomats and exposés on China’s attempts to hijack UN institutions.

The Hong Kong crisis adds another impetus for democratic powers in America, Asia and Europe to act amid mounting public frustration in the Covid-19 era over economic inequalities and big business interests dominating political agendas. The price of inaction, Malovic warns, will be historic. “If nothing happens against China, if the world doesn’t react, the takeover of Hong Kong by China will be a turning point in contemporary history, like the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. It would engrave in stone the fact that China can do anything it wants.”

 

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