How Beijing Has Clamped Down on Hong Kong — And How the Free World Can Respond

Flowers and helmets are placed by pro-democracy demonstrators during a vigil for a protester, Marco Leung Ling-kit, who fell to his death a year ago, in Hong Kong, China June 15, 2020. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)
It is high time for the allies of freedom to commit to preserving self-governance wherever people are kept from exercising it.

As America grapples with disease and political unrest, the people of Hong Kong face a problem that is yet more pressing: the gradual, incessant erosion of their self-governance. In theory, the Chinese promise of “one country, two systems” has provided for a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong since the expiration of the territory’s lease to the United Kingdom in 1997. But in practice, Beijing has not proved keen to uphold its own principle: In late May, the National People’s Congress (NPC) embraced sweeping measures that allegedly aim to compensate for Hong Kong’s lack of national-security provisions but in reality seem poised to threaten the civil liberties of Hongkongers as soon as late June. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has put it, Beijing’s new security law is the “death knell” for Hong Kong’s autonomy: It gives the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) the power to establish its security agencies more openly in Hong Kong, as well as to suppress pro-democracy protesters and other critics of mainland China. Teresa Cheng, the pro-Beijing secretary of justice of Hong Kong, has even admitted that the NPC’s security law will not conform to the legal tradition of Hong Kong: “It is impracticable and unreasonable to expect that everything in a national law, the National Security Law, will be exactly as what a statute in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) common law jurisdiction would be like.”

In light of the NPC’s recent measures, the prospect of self-governance looks grim for Hong Kong. But these measures are just the latest ploy in a long campaign by the CCP to erode the autonomy of its showpiece capitalist territory. Indeed, to even hope to understand how the free world can combat Beijing’s growing hegemony in the South China Sea and beyond, it is imperative to consider how the Chinese regime has acquired the means, will, and occasion to clamp down on Hong Kong.

The British Empire colonized Hong Kong Island in 1842, following the First Opium War. The empire expanded its colony to the Kowloon Peninsula in 1860, following the Second Opium War, and expanded it still further in 1898 through a 99-year lease of the New Territories from the Qing Dynasty’s Guangxu emperor. But by the 1980s, post-colonial Britain had little appetite to maintain control over its trading territory, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signed the Sino–British Joint Declaration in 1984, reaffirming that the U.K. would cede Hong Kong to the Chinese government at the expiration of the 99-year lease in 1997. When the notion of giving Hong Kong over to Mainland China was contested by British conservatives on the grounds that it would appease the forces of Communism, Thatcher compromised by securing reassurances from Beijing that Hong Kong would remain highly autonomous for 50 years. In particular, China pledged that Hong Kong would largely regulate its own affairs, apart from foreign policy and defense. Moreover, China assured the West that the hub for international commerce would enjoy independent courts, relatively unchanged laws rooted in British common law, and executives appointed solely on the basis of local Hong Kong election results. Public order, too, would be maintained at the discretion of the special administrative region.

Yet Beijing struck a dangerous blow in 1996, even before Hong Kong had been ceded to the People’s Republic of China, by averting the attempts of British Hong Kong to clearly confine the terms “succession” and “subversion,” in the context of national-security policy, to violent action. As Wong Yiu-chung, a professor of political science at Lingnan University, notes in One Country, Two Systems in Crisis: Hong Kong’s Transformation since the Handover, the ensuing absence of national-security legislation gave mainland China the opportunity in 2002 to exhort Hong Kong to prohibit “any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the PRC government, or theft of state secrets.” Though these measures had already been stipulated in Article 23 of the Basic Law of Hong Kong — the territory’s de facto constitution, which mirrored the provisions of the Sino–British Joint Declaration — they proved greatly unpopular among Hongkongers. As a result, when then–chief executive of Hong Kong Tung Chee-hwa attempted to draft security legislation in 2003 in accordance with Article 23, his efforts failed spectacularly. Nevertheless, the attempt gave Beijing justification for subsequent oppression; after all, the CCP and its allies can claim today that their new measures are not without precedent — that they are merely the correction of Hong Kong’s inability 17 years ago to enforce Article 23. (Never mind that Hongkongers had no direct say in the creation of the article or any of the Basic Law.)

But why has Hong Kong’s government not resisted Beijing more fiercely for its attempt to unilaterally push through the new security bill? Why, for that matter, has there come to be such great disorder in Hong Kong, a disorder which has given Beijing an excuse to enforce its version of law and order? Eric Brown, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and an expert in Asian foreign policy, directs me to the financial crisis of 2008–09 as a turning point in the Party’s internal policy. “Markets had always been politically constrained in China, but the financial crisis led the Party to conclude that any further liberalization of the politico-economic sphere would put the Party’s hold on power at risk,” he says. “The so-called ‘Beijing Consensus’ — that is, even greater state intervention in the Chinese economy — represented a bid to inoculate the Party’s monopoly on power from the vicissitudes of market forces.”

It was in the spirit of consolidating power that the standing committee of the NPC decreed in 2014 that any candidate for Hong Kong’s chief executive would need to be pre-approved by a body of Chinese authorities. It was in the spirit of consolidating power that Beijing subsequently interfered in Hong Kong’s judicial and legislative systems of government, already predisposed to favor Beijing’s interests through the Basic Law. It was in the spirit of consolidating power that the pro-Beijing administration of Hong Kong proposed an extradition bill in 2019 that supposedly was aimed at Chinese defectors and Hongkongers who had committed crimes abroad but in reality would have given Beijing the authority to force any citizen of Hong Kong to stand trial in mainland China upon its request. This change, of course sparked massive protests: Hongkongers took to the streets by the millions, in doing so expressing their preference for trials rooted in British common law over trials in communist China, which are liable to occur outside of the country’s already-flawed judicial system. And it was in the spirit of consolidating power that Beijing approved its Orwellian security measures last month.

Should it come as any surprise that the people of Hong Kong have protested en masse in opposition to the erosion of their freedoms? That the pro-democracy movement of Hong Kong has not been content to stand by as Beijing sows the seeds of discord and takes advantage of the ensuing chaos? As esteemed journalist Claudia Rosett remarked in the Wall Street Journal last year, “China itself is the only threat to Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.”

Despite China’s incessant push for control over Hong Kong, not all hope is lost for the territory. As Eric Brown tells me, “It’s conceivable that there are people even within the CCP who believe that what Xi Jinping has done has been unwise. It’s possible that if the international response is broad, strong, and sustained enough over time, we will see voices in China and in the Party take issue with Xi’s unilateral efforts to destroy Hong Kong’s autonomy.” Brown especially finds encouragement in recent actions by the U.S. Congress: “In the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, we see a bipartisan drive toward making sure that the CCP’s moves to dissolve the city’s special status are answered appropriately.” But Brown does not think that an international response can be mustered without considerable tact and effort: “The pandemic has put further strains on diplomatic relations between the U.S. and its allies, and the CCP knows this will be a factor as the advanced democracies try to muster an effective international response to the Party’s aggressions.”

The U.N. may provide an organized avenue for such an international response. Brown avers: “As Beijing moves to dissolve Hong Kong’s autonomy, the U.S. should hold the CCP accountable for going back on the terms it committed to in the 1997 handover treaty. That treaty was deposited in the U.N., and therefore concerns all U.N. members.” He is not wholly optimistic: “It is near certain that the U.N. will not hold the CCP to account, since Beijing and its allies, including Russia, would block that.” Nevertheless, Brown maintains that a coalition could be highly significant: “The U.S. [and its allies] must still compel the CCP to defend its egregious and dishonorable actions, and this could help build the moral case among certain countries to support sanctions and prepare other long-term responses.”

Besides international diplomacy, other avenues lie open to Hong Kong and its allies. For instance, China can be threatened with exclusion from participation in national events such as the Olympics if it does not cease its aggressions. The pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong can expand their ranks and more fully unify Hongkongers against Beijing’s encroachment, which a Hongkonger friend informs me is yet to happen (he asks to remain anonymous as a precautionary measure). “When it comes to means, the protestors have not enjoyed as much support among their fellow Hongkongers as when it comes to their ideals — many find their violence and vandalism unsettling,” he says. On a larger scale, the media can relentlessly report on China’s offenses and counter its propaganda efforts, celebrities can pledge to raise awareness for the pro-democracy movement, and voters in the West can hold their politicians accountable for refusing to ignore the ill treatment of Hongkongers. More dramatic actions, such as the full cessation of trade with China or the launching of a military campaign to defend Hong Kong, are theoretically possible but far less feasible, especially given the threats such measures would pose to world stability.

But even if Hong Kong is a lost cause — a notion supported by President Trump’s recent actions to exclude the business hub from the economic sphere — it is not the only territory that faces danger from the Chinese Communist regime. Claudia Rosett tells me: “Taiwan, with its Chinese democracy, is at great risk right now, and it is vital that America support and defend it. We should also not forget Tibet, though Tibet is not currently on the front line of this showdown, for the monstrous reason that China is already far into the process of swallowing it up.” East Turkestan, too, faces oppression at the hands of the Communist regime. All of these targets of the CCP and their allies can surely learn many general lessons from the example of Hong Kong:

First, China should in no way be permitted to interfere with the governmental structures of threatened territories. If it were not for the weakness of the normally stout Prime Minister Thatcher in trusting Communist China to honor the Basic Law, or of British Hong Kong in failing to pass a clearly defined security law in 1996, the CCP would have had far fewer avenues to carry out its oppression. Future lawmakers and diplomats must take heed of China’s deviousness. Of course, this is all easier said than done.

Second, pro-democracy movements enjoy far less margin for error than the tyrannies they protest. Though the citizens’ movement in Hong Kong has been pushed to the extreme, it must refrain from unnecessary violence — the CCP is sure to use protester crimes as a pretext for tightening police control. Indeed, if not for demonstrable violence by some protesters in 2019, such as setting a pro-Beijing citizen on fire, Beijing might not have been so bold as to advance its national-security measures so soon. (Of course, the CCP may have greatly exaggerated the true scale of protester violence.) The Taiwanese people in particular must make certain to present a disciplined, unified front should they find themselves newly menaced by China.

 Third, the free world must be particularly vigilant against the CCP in uncertain times. Eric Brown speculates that “what the pandemic has done,” aside from occasioning the hawkish and neo-totalitarian turn taken by Beijing, “is to change the CCP’s calculations”: “Now is the time for the Party to not just speed up its efforts to control Hong Kong but also to pursue its other political and strategic ambitions.” The Chinese regime tends to advance its agenda when its enemies are distracted, but it is precisely when grave problems arise that the free world should be most watchful against its maneuvers.

Finally, the free world must have an honest conversation with itself about whether it values freedom for all over GDP growth for itself. As Marcus Gee remarked over a decade ago in the Globe and Mail regarding freedom for Tibet, “China is a booming giant of 1.3 billion people. Tibet is a poor mountain land of 2.6 million. No country wants to risk being shut out of the world’s most dynamic economy by backing the quixotic dream of a smiling monk.” It is plausible that a similar consideration is being made now with respect to Hong Kong, and will be made for other lands in the future — a truly unsettling notion. It is high time for the allies of freedom to commit to preserving self-governance wherever people are kept from exercising it, and in doing so to prove Gee wrong.


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