The National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp legislative body, has approved a national security law that asserts Beijing’s authority over Hong Kong. The law is expected to take effect by September will authorize the Chinese government to prevent “secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference” in the semi-autonomous city. In simpler terms, the security practices in effect on mainland China will be coming to Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong itself there is growing fear the new law signals the death of the ‘one country, two systems’ agreement reached between China and Great Britain in 1997 when control was handed over to China. The law will give the city government, with the oversight and participation of mainland authorities, broad powers to quell unrest. A heavy-handed crackdown is expected as soon as the law is enacted.
In the coming weeks, as the Chinese government works out the details of the legislation more will become known about the fate of Hong Kong. Specifically, how much autonomy remains, and how tightly mainland China intends to tighten its grip. The United States is already moving forward under the premise Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from the mainland. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo informed Congress of this yesterday, a move seen as progress towards ending the city’s unique trade status. Hong Kong is currently exempt from the trade restrictions in place against Beijing. This may not be the case for long.
Hong Kong’s independence is what made it a global financial center. The new law throws the city’s future as a financial capital into limbo. Singapore is a likely candidate to fill its shoes in a worst-case scenario, but China will resist. If Hong Kong is to lose its status as the financial hub of mainland Asia, Beijing will want the next hub to be Shanghai.
The protests in Hong Kong present Beijing with its most alarming internal challenge since Tiananmen Square. Although it is premature to label events in Hong Kong an uprising, this may not be the case for much longer. Chinese President Xi Jinping has so far handled the situation in Hong Kong delicately and with an abundance of restraint. Unfortunately, the velvet glove approach has failed to have the desired effect. The protesters actions and demands have become bolder. Hong Kong is defying the Chinese government and getting away with it. If the current disruptions in Hong Kong threaten to spread onto the Mainland, Beijing will be forced to replace the velvet glove with an iron fist. And the possibility is beginning to cause concern in Washington, and other Western capitals.
The White House has expressed concern about a growing buildup of Chinese troops, and armed police on Hong Kong’s border. Weeks of often violent unrest in Hong Kong has stretched the city’s police force to the breaking point and shows no signs of letting up in the near future. Beijing has blamed the United States for playing a role in the creation of the protests even though there is no proof of US involvement. The root causes of the protests in Hong Kong are well known and have been documented in detail. Right now, the greater concern is how the situation in Hong Kong will end.
If the Chinese government declares events in Hong Kong to be an uprising, it likely will mean a bloody crackdown is on the horizon. It will also signal the end of the ‘one country, two systems’ concept that has guided Beijing’s policies regarding Hong Kong since 1997.
The massive upheaval in Hong Kong over an extradition bill that would allow Hong Kong residents to be extradited to the mainland has come at a less than opportune moment for the People’s Republic of China. The extradition bill was purportedly initiated by the Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam without guidance from Beijing. The bill sparked a week of major protests and violent clashes between protesters and police across the city. On Saturday, Lam suspended the bill indefinitely, an act she had hoped would satiate the protesters and bring the city back to normalcy.
That was not to be the case, however. Sunday brought the largest protest Hong Kong has seen since 1997. Central Hong Kong was flooded with two million people according to the protest organizers, though police figures were substantially lower. With the extradition bill now off the table, demonstrators called for Lam’s resignation. Although the ire of Hongkongers has been directed at Lam, the real challenge is being laid at the feet of China’s leadership in Beijing.
China’s President Xi Jinping has been attempting to project the image of a powerful, stable nation as it contends with an economic slowdown, and a trade war with the United States. The Hong Kong protests are in direct contrast to that image. When Xi goes to the G-20 summit at the end of the month it will be the recent events still relatively fresh in the minds of his peers. With China’s image so important at the moment, how Xi is perceived at the summit will be watched closely.
The suspension of the extradition bill in Hong Kong is not the end game. Beijing is keenly aware that the dissent in Hong Kong society has been reawakened and is united. A new approach has to be found to take their existing rights, and freedoms away without running the risk of large-scale turmoil which will draw the attention of the world.