The pro-independence Hong Kong National Party has been given until September 4 to justify why it should not be banned. With no elected office holders and few members, the party has little prospect of success, but the ban would give Beijing a vehicle to advance a “national security” test for the city, a development whose consequences will reach far beyond Hong Kong itself.
The Hong Kong National Party emerged from the pro-democracy demonstrations of 2014. Although the protests didn’t achieve their goal—democratic election of the territory’s top official—the 79-day Umbrella demonstrations reinvigorated the democracy movement and elevated a younger generation to its leadership.
These new politicians and activists were promptly targeted for retaliation: prosecutions for some and disqualification for others who won election to the legislature. Andy Chan, the head of HKNP, was among those prevented even from running for office in 2016.
Chan’s view on independence comes from the conclusion that the “one country, two systems” arrangement which ostensibly protects Hong Kong’s autonomy and domestic freedoms from Beijing is not working. It’s hard to argue with that. In addition, shutting off any hope of democratic home rule, China’s increasingly heavy-handed role in Hong Kong includes kidnappings of Hong Kong residents for political reasons, squeezing the once-vibrant free press and gaining increasing control over the city’s universities and its judicial system.
Even so, the idea of true independence has few supporters. As political analyst Suzanne Pepper writes, “Most Hong Kong democrats already understand and accept that red line as a basic fact of local political life.” The problem is that Beijing’s red line continues to move and encompass more and more subjects.
For now, life in Hong Kong remains freer than on the mainland—an easy bar to meet. However, the use of a national security litmus test, which Beijing had inserted in to a local law, will bring Hong Kong’s politics more in line with Beijing’s. Once established, it’s not far-fetched to imagine “national security” concerns being used to outlaw public protests, including the annual march to commemorate the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre of democracy protesters. Eventually, even a private gathering to discuss democracy could be out of bounds, as it is on the mainland. Indeed, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has threatened to take action against the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club for hosting a talk by Mr. Chan on August 14. Using familiar communist rhetoric, it urged the club to “reflect on itself . . . fix [its] mistakes” and threatened that “[a]ny words and deeds to split Hong Kong from China will be punished in accordance with the law.”
Beijing’s “national security” agenda in Hong Kong has roots in the mainland, but its implications extend much farther afield. In 2015, China adopted a law linking its national security to China’s “core interests.” These interests used to be few, discrete, and defensive, referring to areas where China’s claims of sovereignty were suspect: Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang. Now Beijing defines them more broadly to justify projection of power and dictatorial rule abroad. Core interests, Edward Wong of the New York Times reported, “refers to what Chinese leaders see as three sacrosanct rights of the nation: maintaining the political system, with unquestioned rule by the Communist Party; defending sovereignty claims and territorial integrity; and economic development.” The law, according to legal scholar Jerome Cohen is “an ideological platform that guides domestic and foreign policies.”
The Trump Administration has embarked on a free and open Indo-Pacific Initiative. As it gets underway, the initiative has been criticized for a lack of detail and a relatively small amount of aid and investment compared to China’s ambitious One Belt, One Road investment and infrastructure initiative. A direct comparison between the U.S. and Chinese economic roles in Asia would be difficult. Unquestionably, the basis for America’s leadership in the region is its commitment to democratic principles. If the Administration’s initiative is to be credible, it must confront Beijing’s projection of ideological influence around its periphery and farther afield. That includes Hong Kong.
While that doesn’t mean support for Hong Kong’s independence, it does require including support for the freedoms of association and speech, and peaceful political activity. It should also explicitly reject Beijing’s crafting of a “national security” rationale for extending control over people who seek to preserve their own freedoms. That’s what the struggle over a tiny political party in Hong Kong is all about.