Pushing the Envelope: China moves on Hong Kong

Two key things made international headlines after China’s National People’s Congress that ended on May 28th.  Firstly, for the first time since the tradition began in 1994, the Prime Minister Li Keqiang did not set an annual GDP target, due to coronavirus-related uncertainties. Secondly, the congress announced that China would shape and implement a national-security law for Hong Kong without the cooperation of its legislature – an unprecedented move against the territory’s autonomy that could signal the first step in a more assertive Chinese foreign policy.

The bill has been played down by government officials as a plug for a legal loophole – a benevolent correction – in an attempt to placate business-people. It rests on a clause in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, that allows China to legislate for the territory. But crucially, the Basic Law limits that ability to matters not related to Hong Kong’s autonomy. 

The proposed law, which would make secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference criminal acts, does relate to Hong Kong’s autonomy. Not least because it could result in Chinese security institutions being set up in Hong Kong. A previous attempt by the Hong Kong legislature to enact such a law failed in 2003 after huge protests. Last year, a proposed extradition law sparked a pro-democracy movement that went on for months.

So why, after such massive demonstrations, is China now going a step further, by drafting the law itself and bypassing the Hong Kong legislature altogether? The key here is the coronavirus. On the one hand, protests on any scale are difficult to hold whilst sticking to social distancing measures. But perhaps more importantly, social distancing rules give the government an excuse to ban protests and crack down on them with greater impunity, under the guise of enforcing coronavirus measures. The annual Tiananmen Square vigil traditionally held on June 4th, for example, was banned.

Moreover, the traditional defenders of Hong Kong’s autonomy on an international stage, the US and UK are currently preoccupied with the pandemic at home. Add to that the resurgence of demonstrations within the US sparked by the killing of George Floyd – against which the US government is itself reacting heavy-handedly. This would make any move by the US in support of protesters in Hong Kong easy to dismiss by Chinese authorities. 

Immediately after the bill was announced, the US and UK governments did take some action. The UK announced it would consider offering British National Overseas Passports to eligible Hong Kongers. And the US Secretary of State announced that the US would no longer consider Hong Kong autonomous from China, meaning that US tariffs on China that Hong Kong had previously been exempt from would soon affect Hong Kong as well.

The underlying threat here is that Hong Kong’s status as an international business centre would suffer if sanctions came into force. But this assumes that Hong Kong is of significant importance to the Chinese economy. Forty years ago, the territory accounted for nearly 17% of China’s total economic output. But in 2018, the proportion was down to 2.7%. Other cities such as Shenzhen and Shanghai are now equally powerful economically. In short, China may now be willing to forgo Hong Kong’s position as an international business hub in exchange for greater control because it can afford the economic fallout.

But the real issue here may go beyond Hong Kong. The coronavirus is restructuring the international order, with US prominence fading. As countries turn inward to deal with the economic fallout of the pandemic, China may become more assertive. With this national-security bill, China may be testing the water – pushing the envelope to see what reaction comes from the international arena.

Depending on the international reaction, China may feel emboldened to turn to other contested territories, such as Taiwan. With Hong Kong, which is set to be integrated into China in 2047 anyway under the “one country, two systems” agreement, the international response may be limited to sanctions or joint statements for fear of interfering too much in China’s affairs. But with Taiwan, there is potentially more at stake.

 

Image: Anti China Protests via Piqsels

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