China is currently transgressing the terms of its 1997 treaty over Hong Kong, which promised a “one country, two systems” settlement that preserved Hong Kong’s somewhat autonomous democratic institutions. These institutions guarantee rights to Hong Kongers and guard its common-law inheritance.
China’s legislature in Beijing is preparing a new national-security law aimed at Hong Kong to prohibit and punish terrorism, foreign influence, and secession. By that, they mean demonstration, free speech, and a functioning democratic system with rights guaranteed to citizens. Meanwhile, Beijing’s loyalists installed in Hong Kong’s legislative council have been making open attempts at a putsch against the pro-democracy majority.
China’s move against Hong Kong is likely dictated by propitious circumstances. Democracy protesters in Hong Kong may be fatigued. And while the rest of the world deals with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, there is little appetite to expend the diplomatic energy or engage in the trade actions that could protect Hong Kong.
At the time of the treaty, little Hong Kong accounted for nearly 20 percent of China’s overall economy, and it was a crucial engine of China’s economic growth. Companies that wanted to do business in a liberalizing China headquartered in Hong Kong. Financial markets still prefer it. Why? Because it has inherited a property-rights regime and a judicial system from the Anglo tradition. One could make a case in a Hong Kong court and expect a fair hearing, rather than a political judgment dictated by a party boss.
Abrogating the two-systems settlement is an injustice, and a foreseeable one. Hong Kong now represents less than 3 percent of China’s economy. And so Beijing senses it can strike a new bargain, renege on its treaty obligation, and put to death any notion that Hong Kong’s style of government will ever win out by persuasion.
Past attempts at “security legislation” or other measures aimed at Hong Kong’s independence were met with furious protests. Hong Kong’s democracy movement has taken to the streets in 2003, in the 2014 Umbrella movement, and in the massive civil unrest of 2019. The advanced guard of Hong Kong activists are hardened, committed, and, in many cases, radicalized. But they may face a problem of protest fatigue and resignation among supporters.
What’s being done to Hong Kongers is an immense injustice. But Hong Kong cannot depend on outside intervention for assistance. Beyond some diplomatic pressure from the United States, little else is coming. No major power has the ability or will to protect Hong Kong’s autonomy with military threats.
So Hong Kongers can only protect their autonomy the way all small nations do against behemoth powers at the doorstep: by being ungovernable save on their own terms. This requires an immense amount of unity and morale among the people themselves, and even then the outcome is not certain.
Over the last 20 years, Hong Kongers have demonstrated that they have the reserves of courage and fortitude found among freeborn men living in republics of their own. But even if China should get its way and impose itself on Hong Kong through these “security measures,” for at least another generation or more, that desire for freedom can be kept alive, waiting for its opportunity to strike.
The Western world needs to pay attention to Hong Kong. President Trump, who has not always taken a consistent stance against international despotism, has rightly warned that the U.S. will react “very strongly” if China moves ahead with the law. Just as China has turned the pressure up on Hong Kong, so it has done with many of its trade partners. China is showing us that its economic leverage will be used against the political freedom of its “friends.” It’s time to learn that lesson.