The Chinese government has emerged from the first wave of the COVID-19 outbreak confident and ready to assert itself ever more vigorously at home and abroad. There is no sign of self-doubt or concern about its role in creating the worst crisis the world has faced in generations. The decision to convene the National People’s Congress (NPC), the annual meeting of parliament that was delayed two months because of the coronavirus, is one sign of Beijing’s confidence.
Even more revealing is the decision by the NPC to adopt new national security legislation for Hong Kong, a bill that bypasses the city’s legislature and eviscerates the concept of “one country, two systems” that was designed to safeguard its independence upon its return to the mainland.
Sadly, the move is unlikely to generate more than warnings of dire consequences — which will never materialize. China’s ruling Communist Party has taken the measure of the world and found it wanting, unwilling and thus unable to challenge actions that Beijing considers necessary to safeguard its interests.
When Hong Kong was returned to the mainland in 1997, Beijing agreed to the “one country, two systems” formula that gave the Special Administration Region — the official term for the city, a name that suggests a distinctive status — a high degree of autonomy. Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the legal framework that codified that arrangement, provided political freedoms for citizens that few in the mainland dared dream of possessing. The Basic Law, however, also stipulated that the Hong Kong legislature would pass a law that prohibits subversion, secession and foreign influence in the territory. It failed to do so, and Beijing, having given up hope of any action, decided to act on its own.
Hong Kong’s inaction is not for lack of trying. An attempt to pass legislation in 2003 triggered mass protests and the eventual resignation of Hong Kong’s first chief executive. Legislators have since urged the local government to do something or Beijing would do it for them — warnings that proved prophetic last week.
Draft legislation passed by the NPC uses authority granted to it by the Basic Law to ban acts of secession, terrorism and foreign interference, and allows China’s national security organs — in particular, the Ministry of State Security, which is often likened to the Soviet Union’s KGB — to open offices in Hong Kong. Details of the legislation will not be known for months when new laws are to be introduced. When they are divulged, expect broad, ill-defined concepts that give those security agencies great latitude and imperil the basic rights afforded Hong Kong citizens elsewhere in the Basic Law.
Wang Chen, vice chairman of the standing committee of the NPC, argued for the legislation, warning that “Anti-China, disrupt-Hong Kong forces have been openly promoting Hong Kong independence.” Foreign Minister Wang Yi called the bill “urgent and imperative,” pointing to protests last year which “posed a grave threat to Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability, and to the practice of ‘One Country, Two Systems.’” Global Times, the nationalist newspaper that gives voice to the darkest speculations in China, backed action because “For the year of 2019, HK did not enjoy a single peaceful day. It was like a city in an undeveloped country engulfed in turmoil.”
“Not a single peaceful day” is an exaggeration, as is the claim, voiced in Global Times but heard elsewhere in China, that foreign influences direct the protests and that “black hands” promote Hong Kong’s independence or worse, the spread of the democratic contagion throughout China to undermine the Communist Party rule. Those claims are wrong and self-serving — but that does not mean that the Chinese leadership does not feel threatened or that the fictions are not believed.
The Beijing government is taking action now, well, because it can. The Chinese leadership is newly energized by its seeming mastery of the COVID-19 outbreak and its “wolf warrior” diplomats are promoting the image of a capable and determined nation, acting decisively to protect itself and the world. The flip side of that logic is that other governments are distracted as they battle the pandemic, and are unwilling to take up distant concerns.
More worrying is a belief among the Chinese leadership that other governments would not act even without the distraction. For over a decade, Beijing has regularly asserted its unique status in the world, adopting expansive claims in the South and East China seas, or using its considerable economic might against countries that challenge it in any way, real or perceived. Resistance has been limited when it has occurred. There has been tough talk — if that — but no substantive action.
Reaction to the new legislation has validated that logic. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the move the “death knell” for “one country, two systems” and threatened a review of Hong Kong’s favorable trading status with the United States. President Donald Trump has that authority, courtesy of the 2019 Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, but there is concern that he would forego that opportunity to protect the trade deal he signed with China earlier this year.
Other governments have been even less troubled, with most echoing the British statement that it is “monitoring the situation,” adding that London expected “China to respect Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms and high degree of autonomy.”
Sadly, the Japanese government is among them. After the legislation was introduced, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga last week called Hong Kong an “extremely important partner” for Japan and noted that “We believe it's important that under the 'one country, two systems' framework, a free and open Hong Kong will continue to prosper in a stable manner.” Like the others, he added that “We are closely following the development with very high interest.”
If China hoped that a lack of concern by the rest of the world might deflate protests, it was wrong. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday to protest the bill; the police responded with tear gas and the use of a water cannon. Still, the activism is likely to have little impact on the Beijing government.
There is little sympathy on the mainland for the Hong Kong protests; many Chinese consider Hong Kong residents spoiled and lazy. As the mainland economy struggles to overcome the pandemic — the NPC did not set a growth target for the first time in over a quarter century — there is no appetite for anything that hints of special treatment for the city. Beijing also does not want to send any signal to Taiwan, for which the “one country, two systems” model was designed, that it can defy the mainland government’s wishes.
Taiwan’s commitment to its current status, like the Hong Kong protests, are, for the Beijing government, the most important challenge to the message that China is strong and united and that the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” is proceeding. They are affronts to the Chinese leadership in general and President Xi Jinping personally.
Other governments may not be able to change their thinking about these issues but that does not mean that they can afford to be indifferent to Chinese behavior that flouts international norms and ignores obligations that Beijing has accepted.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of "Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions."
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