From Hong Kong, the images last week have been less dramatic but no less momentous than the massive protests and police brutality of last year. In a Kowloon courtroom, the labor leader Lee Cheuk Yan, barristers Martin Lee and Margaret Ng, and the newspaper owner Jimmy Lai and 11 others arrived to answer charges of participating in peaceful demonstrations. Across the harbor in the territory’s legislature, brawny, suited guards forcibly removed lawmakers trying to block the progress of a bill to criminalize disrespect for the People’s Republic of China’s national anthem.
At the end of the week came still more shattering news from Beijing. The People’s Republic’s rubber-stamp National People’s Congress began proceedings to impose a new national security law in Hong Kong that would prohibit secession, subversion, foreign interference, and terrorism—terms which, in the hands of the CCP and its proxies in Hong Kong, would criminalize peaceful protest.
Even in the steady erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy, this is a stunning development— the “death knell,” as Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s put it, for Hong Kong’s autonomy, and by extension, the era of American policy based on it.
The distraction provided by the coronavirus does not explain Beijing’s actions, even if there is opportunism at work. The extension of restrictions on large gatherings until June 4 preempts the annual candlelight vigil commemorating the 1989 massacre of democracy on the mainland. Hong Kong’s civil liberties made it the only place under Chinese Communist Party rule where such a gathering has been possible. On the mainland, even small meetings in private homes to honor the victims have led to arrests on subversion grounds.
Virus or no virus, the CCP would have exacted retribution for the massive protests of last summer and fall which forced withdrawal of legislation to enable extradition to the mainland. Last November, pro-Beijing political parties in Hong Kong suffered staggering losses in local elections where united front tactics of cooptation and largesse are usually effective. Upcoming September 2020 elections for the territory-wide legislature had held the prospect of another defeat for Beijing. Despite the harassment and hurdles put in their way, democrats might be able to block another version of the extradition law, or the anti-subversion provision Beijing had built into its blueprint for governing Hong Kong.
Beijing recognizes that it can no longer rely on its proxies in Hong Kong to achieve its objectives. Never intending to allow a small, self-governing democracy within its boundaries, Beijing has relied on what Deng Xiao-ping called “local residents who love mother China and Hong Kong.” Not surprisingly, successive chief executives chosen by Beijing have proved not only illegitimate but unpopular and ineffectual as they have found it necessary to demonstrate more and more slavishly their loyalty to the CCP.
Much more important, the PRC’s ambitions for Hong Kong have changed. During China’s rapid economic development, Hong Kong’s prized legal infrastructure and financial services, the product of British colonial rule, were vital. Now, having built up its economy and military, the PRC is asserting itself globally, seeking to dislodge America from leadership positions in Asia, and advancing anti-democratic norms around the world.
According to the China scholar and historian of Hong Kong Steve Tsang, the U.S. and China watchers generally failed to understand that this would affect the CCP’s attitudes toward Hong Kong as well. Like the more well-known Belt and Road Initiative, the PRC’s Greater Bay Area plan for a “megacity cluster” of cities in southern China relies on expensive infrastructure projects, like the over-budget, under-used bridge connecting Hong Kong to Macau and Zhuhai, and the high-speed train linking Hong Kong to the mainland to project the Party’s political power and values. “Once Hong Kong is seen first and foremost as a key component of the Greater Bay Area,” says Steve Tsang, “the importance of keeping Hong Kong became less.” The national security provisions and operation of mainland security agencies in Hong Kong supersede the controversy over the application of mainland law in one part of the high-speed terminal.
Less emphasis on good relations with the United States, and on Hong Kong’s rule of law and civil liberties, mean Chinese leaders are unlikely to be concerned about the upcoming determination on Hong Kong’s autonomy that is the core of America’s policy.
In his remarks last week, Secretary Pompeo said the decision on Hong Kong’s autonomy would be postponed until after the meetings. In fact, it appears that the United States has already made a judgment on autonomy. In April, the U.S. allowed Google to activate a high-speed underwater data cable that had branches to Hong Kong and Taiwan—so long as it excluded Hong Kong. The decision, according to the Wall Street Journal, “threatens to end Hong Kong’s dominance as a top destination for U.S. internet cables and puts at risk several ongoing projects” with additional links to the city.
The post-autonomy era has arrived. It’s a bit unnerving, but facing reality has advantages. Like much of America’s China policy, Hong Kong policy was devised to fit the needs of now-outdated geopolitical circumstances. Now, Beijing can live with whatever the U.S. decides regarding autonomy, particularly as the first casualties will include the people of Hong Kong and American business.
In any case, the autonomy assessment has always been subjective, the product of relations with Beijing as well as the lack of an obvious alternative to maintaining the status quo. The system Beijing put in place was never true autonomy. We should have seen last week’s events coming and been prepared. With their actions, Chinese leaders have ensured that from now on the battle for Hong Kong will also be a battle for freedom throughout China. Washington should formulate an approach that takes into account the importance of Hong Kong not only to its deserving people, but also in the contest between free and repressive regimes being fought out in and around its territory.