Game over for Hong Kong if US plays hardball

March 28, 2019 09:00
If the US scraps the special customs territory status for Hong Kong, it won’t do any good to any side, including mainland China. Photo: Reuters

This September marks the fifth anniversary of Occupy Central, a mass pro-democracy uprising that paralyzed Hong Kong's key commercial districts for 79 days. Five years on, the protest, which drew tens of thousands of people in its early days, is receding from our collective memory. Even those who played key roles in the movement rarely mention it or use it as a rallying cry. But the uprising had, and is still having, a profound effect on Hong Kong, not in the way proponents of greater democracy had hoped but in exactly the opposite way.

Widely considered a failed democracy uprising, even among the city’s various democracy factions, Occupy Central gave Beijing the pretext to export some of President Xi Jinping’s authoritarian policies to Hong Kong. The uprising’s offshoots, such as the Mong Kok riots, improper oath-taking by opposition legislators that mocked China, and the independence movement, gave Beijing a further opening to redefine the meaning of one country, two systems and a high degree of autonomy.

Since the 2014 protest, also dubbed the Umbrella Movement, Beijing has methodically tightened its grip on Hong Kong to the point that the United States is now questioning if our high degree of autonomy is still intact under one country, two systems. The Umbrella Movement erupted after Beijing offered a democratic reform framework that included a screening process for chief executive candidates, which opposition legislators voted down after the uprising ended.

Beijing countered by making clear its political reform framework was the only one on offer and Hong Kong could either take it or leave it. After the 2016 Legislative Council elections, China’s parliament interpreted the Basic Law to effectively force local courts to disqualify six opposition legislators who hadn’t exactly followed the oath-taking procedures. The disqualifications meant opposition legislators no longer had enough votes to veto important legislation, like they did with the political framework proposal.

Beijing’s tightening grip on Hong Kong came into its sharpest focus last year through a series of highly controversial political acts which drew criticism not only from the US but also many other Western countries. Using the Hong Kong government as a proxy, Beijing barred opposition candidates for Legco by-elections, district council elections, and even for a rural election from running on the grounds they had either supported independence or self-determination. The Hong Kong National Party, which advocates independence, was banned.

A foreign correspondent, Victor Mallet, was expelled from Hong Kong, and later denied entry as a tourist, for moderating a lunch talk by National Party convenor Andy Chan Ho-tin at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. The government redefined free speech to mean even peaceful discussion of independence would be illegal. A proposed national anthem law forbids anyone from mocking the anthem, without making legally clear what amounts to mocking. And mainland officials repeatedly put the emphasis on one country rather than the two systems.

This year saw increased pressure by mainland officials and Beijing loyalists to push ahead with the controversial Article 23 national security law, which was withdrawn in 2003 after a million protestors took to the streets. And Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor now wants to rush through an extradition treaty with mainland China even though the two sides had failed to reach an agreement after 20 years of negotiations because of different legal systems.

The way the central and Hong Kong governments see it, none of their actions since the 2014 uprising amounted to an erosion of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy. Rather, they insist Western countries have a misconceived notion of one country, two systems. Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung expanded on this last week by accusing Western countries of using their own values to conclude Hong Kong’s autonomy had diminished. He, in effect, interpreted Beijing’s tightening grip on Hong Kong as making sure the local government would never allow China’s national interest to be undermined.

In simple language, this means the Hong Kong government, at the behest of Beijing, will crush the independence movement at all costs even though the movement has little public support, will do all it can to prevent the West, especially the US, from using Hong Kong to undermine China’s national security, and to make clear the central government will not tolerate the US interfering in Hong Kong’s domestic affairs.

But is the US interfering in Hong Kong’s domestic affairs by issuing regular State Department and Congressional reports that assess Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy? The US is indeed interfering if Hong Kong wants nothing from, and asks nothing of, the US. But the US has a law that differentiates Hong Kong from mainland China by giving it a special status that cushions it from tariffs and other restrictions that apply to China. To benefit from the law, Hong Kong must have a high degree of autonomy.

The American position is that the law requires the US government to regularly assess if Hong Kong has the autonomy to deserve special treatment. If not, the US president can revoke the special status. Are the annual reports interfering in Hong Kong’s internal affairs or fulfilling the requirements of US law? The answer is simple. If Hong Kong and the central government do not want critical annual reports that say Hong Kong’s autonomy is eroding, it can tell the US to scrap the special customs territory so it can be part of China for tariffs and other issues.

I don’t think that would benefit Hong Kong, the US, and mainland China. The US gains a lot from trade with Hong Kong, and the city likewise thrives from its special customs territory status. But if Beijing further tightens its political grip on Hong Kong, it could undermine business confidence in the city. And that could result in the US canceling parts of the Hong Kong Policy Act that gives Hong Kong special status. If the US narrows the scope of the Hong Kong Policy Act, causing the international community to lose business confidence in the city, it’s game over for us.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.