Commentary / Japan

Japan's Hong Kong conundrum

by Stephen R. Nagy

On many levels, the Hong Kong protests represent the proverbial canary in a coal mine in terms of China’s intentions for the Indo-Pacific. The manner in which the situation unfolds in Hong Kong could transform the region’s geopolitical balance.

Japan is deeply connected to Hong Kong as it is the home of countless Japanese businesses that rely on the increasingly tenuous “one country, two systems” formula to conduct business with Hong Kong and mainland China. Hong Kong is also home to tens of thousands of Japanese residents who act as grassroots ambassadors and forge strong people-to-people ties between Japan, Hong Kong and mainland China.

Intervention by Beijing or further escalation of the violence in Hong Kong would destabilize this important bridge between Japan and the greater China region.

Equally worrisome for Japan is what a violent intervention or increased instability in Hong Kong would mean for Japanese businesses in the region.

As trust in the “one country, two systems” formula continues to erode, supply chains will continue to shift away from the current China-centered one toward a supply chain that is partly centered in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.

This will temporarily increase the cost of doing business in the region and may put Japanese businesses in a position in which Beijing raises the stakes for Japanese businesses migrating out of China.

If the one country, two systems formula breaks, financial and other firms will migrate to Singapore and to a lesser degree Tokyo. We will also see an exodus of highly skilled foreign workers from China itself as there will be concerns that “what happens in Hong Kong will not stay in Hong Kong.”

This could be an incremental process that is manageable. In the case of a sudden shift in stability in Hong Kong, Japan would be tasked to repatriate unknown numbers of citizens. Reintegrating them back into Japan would seriously stress schools, social welfare and the health care system.

Japan would also become a hub to relocate fleeing residents of Hong Kong, further tasking an already overburdened system.

The weaponization of tourism that we are seeing in Hong Kong is something that Japan should keep its eye on as well. Tourists from the mainland are declining for ill-founded fear of reprisals based on disinformation campaigns in mainland media. This decrease in tourism is hitting Hong Kong businesses hard, taking away a valuable source of income.

These tactics were used against South Korea after the installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system and are easily shifted to other states when political differences occur.

Japan should not be naive that this could not happen to it. In 2018, China accounted for about 1.1 million of the inbound tourists to Japan (19.5 percent more from the previous year), who are said to spend approximately ¥220,000 per person. The weaponization of tourists to Japan would put a big dent in economic policies that are trying to transform tourism into one of the major pillars of the economy.

The protests in Hong Kong have, by in large, taken the form of peaceful civil disobedience against the government. There have been dozens of large-scale protests of up to 2 million people who peacefully demonstrated against the Hong Kong government’s extradition law. There has been a human chain of tens of thousands mimicking the Baltic states’ purposeful 1989 peaceful protests against the Soviet Union.

Importantly, the protesters made five demands: 1) withdraw the extradition bill; 2) Chief Executive Carrie Lam must step down; 3) an inquiry must be launched into police brutality; 4) the people who have been arrested must be released; and 5) greater democratic freedoms. Noticeably absent from this list is independence, overthrowing the Chinese Communist Party or becoming a fully democratic society.

China’s news outlets have reported a very different situation. Descriptions of the protests focus on targeted attacks against mainland reporters and citizens, large scale violence and vandalism, interference from outside forces (the United States) and a protest that is focused on independence from China. Particular attention by propagandists include a narrative that Washington’s alleged democracy promotion in Hong Kong will end up like the post-color revolutions of Libya and Syria, and the post-Iraq War’s sectarian violence and chaos.

This point of view resonates deeply with a Chinese citizenry that has been exposed to a narrative that only one party rule can ensure that the nation remains stable and continues to grow.

To date, one mainland reporter has been attacked by a small group of protesters. Some violence and vandalism has occurred by a small group of protesters. A very small minority have advocated for independence. There have been small counterprotests by a group of Hong Kong residents who support Beijing’s approach to Hong Kong. They have not been able to mobilize 2 million people for protests nor have they had a sustained presence.

The weaponization of information and the use of online trolls to spread disinformation about the Hong Kong protests has shaped a domestic narrative in China that is not represented by facts on the ground. The competitive campaign to shape the Hong Kong protests narrative is being played out in cyberspace and on the ground in China, Hong Kong and foreign countries, including Japan.

The pervasive disinformation campaigns being executed by Beijing related to Hong Kong are also deeply troublesome. Through the use of online trolls, Beijing is eroding people’s trust in media and people’s ability to understand current and forthcoming affairs by obscuring facts and focusing on nonrepresentative events to create a narrative about events such as Hong Kong.

If Beijing can successfully quell the protests in Hong Kong and alter the narrative away from a fact-based approach to understanding current events, including Hong Kong, the lesson learned here will be that they can apply similar tactics to issues that concern Japan and other countries.

Relevant issues in Japan could include obfuscating the need for constitutional reform or exaggerating the tensions that revolve around the U.S. bases in Okinawa or other parts of Japan. Shifting the public understanding of these issues in Japan through disinformation campaigns could weaken Japan’s security cooperation not only with the U.S. but also other partners in and outside of the region.

In this sense, a NIMBY (not in my backyard) approach to the Hong Kong protests is not a prudent approach to addressing Japan’s Hong Kong conundrum. Japan and partners should be focused on ensuring that the one country, two systems formula in Hong Kong remains robust.

Simultaneously, Japan and its friends should proactively cooperate to build effective firewalls and strategies against the tactics being deployed by Beijing to delegitimize the Hong Kong protests. Disinformation campaigns and the weaponization of trade, tourism and students are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how conflict will be prosecuted in the 21st century.

Don’t doubt that they will be the first to be deployed as geopolitical tensions rise in the region. Liberal democratic societies such as Japan should see the Hong Kong protests as the first volley in a protracted cyber struggle that could undermine their open societies.

Stephen R. Nagy is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs.