Under cover of the global coronavirus crisis, China is moving to rewrite Asia’s geopolitical map. Beijing has announced it will essentially take control of Hong Kong by directly imposing a sweeping national-security law, bypassing the territory’s elected Legislative Council. Despite repeated assurances by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that it would abide by the 1984 agreement with Great Britain to allow Hong Kong to maintain a loose independence under the so-called “one-country, two-systems” framework for 50 years after the 1997 turnover, the past decade has seen a steady erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms, culminating in the massive million-person-plus demonstrations throughout 2019. Now, those last freedoms face extinction.
The new national-security law will criminalize “foreign interference,” secession activities, and subversion of state power. Moreover, the CCP appears ready to alter Hong Kong’s Basic Law, essentially its constitution. Moreover, China’s security services will be able to operate openly in Hong Kong, further reducing Hong Kong’s sovereignty.
Only 23 years have passed since Great Britain handed over the colony to Beijing, and in that time, Hong Kong’s importance as a financial hub has lessened as Shanghai and other mainland financial centers developed. Yet Hong Kong always remained a symbol of relative freedom within China’s Communist system, and as the CCP has steadily clawed back power inside China since the accession to power of General Secretary Xi Jinping, Hong Kong’s status increasingly became irreconcilable with trends on the mainland. The CCP pushed electoral reforms by Hong Kong’s Legislative Council that ensured the election of pro-Beijing candidates, interfered with the courts and press, and steadily increased the mainland’s influence over society.
When Chief Executive Carrie Lam last year proposed an extradition bill that would have allowed the rendering of Hong Kong citizens to the mainland, the dormant democracy protests flared up, consuming the territory’s political and social life for much of the year. Lam was forced to withdraw the bill, but Beijing bided its time until the protests died down, even as the fundamental questions about Hong Kong’s future remained unanswered. Fearing the return of massive protests against Beijing’s increasing influence on the island once the coronavirus crisis has passed, the CCP has decided in essence to abrogate the remainder of Hong Kong’s freedoms with the imposition of the national-security bill.
The proposed national-security bill not only reveals that the CCP cannot be trusted to honor its international agreements. The bigger story is Mr. Xi’s willingness to aggressively move against any potential separatist movements, regardless of international law or morality. Beijing’s move to take over Hong Kong cannot be separated from its stamping out of Chinese civil society, as well as its brutal crackdowns in Xinjiang and Tibet.
Even more ominous is the specter that this throws on Taiwan. The democratic island nation just inaugurated President Tsai Ing-wen for a second term, and Tsai’s steadfast rejection of Beijing’s attempts to force Taiwan into a similar one country-two systems model has made her a target of CCP invective and intimidation.
It is clear that a successful move by Beijing on Hong Kong would cast a long shadow on Taiwan. China cannot simply intervene in Taiwan, a nation of 23 million people separated from the mainland by a body of water. Beijing does not have PLA units based in Taiwan, the way it does in Hong Kong. However, as the CCP shows its willingness to bear international condemnation for subordinating Hong Kong, and its willingness to do so during a global crisis, the message to Taiwan is clear. The old restrictions that Beijing put on its behavior towards Taiwan may no longer hold. How that ultimately plays out is unknown, not least in China itself, but by reordering the geopolitical landscape in Asia through essentially absorbing Hong Kong, Beijing opens up greater possibilities for action.
The CCP’s move on Hong Kong, and its increased threat to Taiwan, will be bolstered by a weak international response. Fear of provoking Beijing’s wrath, on display from its “wolf warrior diplomats” and recent intimidation of the European Union and Australia, will lead some to consider this a merely internal Chinese affair. That is precisely the outcome Beijing wants, leaving Hong Kong and Taiwan isolated, and giving China a free hand to shape its near abroad to its liking, regardless of the wishes of the over 30 million Taiwanese and Hong Kongers.
The United States must lead the moral and political opposition to this naked power grab by Beijing. Perhaps fortuitously, the White House has just released a “Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China,” warning that Beijing “challenges the bedrock American belief in the unalienable right of every person to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Taking over Hong Kong in direct defiance of the desires of Hong Kong’s citizens proves the validity of this assertion.
While Washington’s direct options are limited, China should be forced to veto a UN Security Council resolution condemning its abrogation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law. Travel bans on high-ranking CCP officials and military officers should also be considered, especially if violence is used against any new demonstrations, as should further sanctions on technology transfer to China. Finally, once the law is passed by Beijing, Washington should offer immediate asylum to Hong Kong’s democratic leaders, as well as to prominent academics, business leaders, artists, and the like, who will be most at risk.
Restricting engagement with China and offering America as a haven for Hong Kongers are small steps, but ones that will send a message of hope to those who are resisting Beijing’s attempts to redraw Asia’s map.