Hong Kong will be loser in Sino-U.S. Cold War

May 14, 2020 06:00
Photo: Reuters

Hong Kong will be the loser as the Sino-U.S. Cold War intensifies. The two new leaders sent by Beijing are determined to pass Article 23, whatever the price, and are ready to arrest thousands more people and disqualify members of LegCo, if necessary.

Relations between Beijing and Washington will deteriorate for the rest of the year, giving Washington less bargaining power and ability to influence events here.

Fearful that he will lose re-election in November, President Donald Trump has chosen to make China responsible for the Covid 19 pandemic. The U.S. death toll will exceed 200,000. Unemployment has already reached levels not seen since the Great Depression. To deflect blame for this catastrophe, Trump desperately needs a scapegoat.

China is fighting back. It blames Trump for his lack of preparation and chaotic management of the virus. It contrasts that with the effective lockdown enforced in China and its generosity in providing medical personnel and equipment to countries around the world.

The conflict has nothing to do with Hong Kong – but Beijing says that the U.S. is using the city as part of its global campaign to “attack” and “contain” China.

This month U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Beijing of departing from the “one country, two systems” principle and that national security legislation here would breach that principle.

“These remarks are a serious violation of international law,” replied the Central Government’s Liaison Office (CGLO). “They are another example of the brutal interference by external forces in China’s internal affairs.”

Over the last month, the role of the CGLO has changed dramatically. It overruled the Hong Kong government, which initially said that, under Article 22 of the Basic Law, the CGLO had no right to interfere in the internal affairs of the SAR.

Then it oversaw a cabinet reshuffle which saw five ministers changed. Since then, it has issued strong statements on subjects that were previously the purview of the Hong Kong government. Beijing has changed the policy it followed for the first 23 years after the handover.

This dramatic change is the result of the appointment of Luo Huining as director of the CGLO in January and Xia Baolong as director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs office in February. Loyalists of President Xi Jinping, they have no experience of Hong Kong affairs, few personal links here and do not speak English or Cantonese.

Their mandate is to implement Xi’s instructions, which include passage of Article 23, creation of a LegCo that functions efficiently and follows Beijing’s directives and the ending of street protests.

At the end of April, Xia met Carrie Lam in Shenzhen and instructed her to pass Article 23. He told her that Hong Kong could become a loophole in China’s national security. Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s sole representative to the National People’s Congress, said on May 3 that Article 23 should be passed no later than August 2021.

Luo and Xia do not care that the large majority of Hong Kong people oppose Article 23 and have expressed their opposition many times. Their responsibility is to get the bill passed. The better option is for LegCo to pass it. They will do their best to disqualify legislators, sitting or potential, whom they consider disloyal, before the September election.

If the election produces a chamber controlled by the Democrats, they may dissolve LegCo and replace it with a provisional one.

The other option, if LegCo cannot pass the bill, is for the NPC Standing Committee to make an interpretation, as it is allowed to do under Article 158 of the Basic Law.

All this will result in rising social conflict for the rest of the year, on and off the streets, between a large portion of the population and the government. Luo and Xia will not accept any demands of the protestors. Their response will be the police and mass arrests, as in the mainland. The police can limit permission for legal assemblies. The democrats may call for a general strike.

The United States and other foreign countries can influence these events in only a minor way. As the Sino-US Cold War worsens and their two economies “decouple”, Washington has less and less bargaining power. Beijing will ignore its protests and present them as part of a global “anti-China conspiracy”.

The big winner in this new Cold War is Taiwan. Never since 1979 have relations been so close with the United States. The U.S. military is increasingly active in the air and seas around Taiwan, a display of support for the island. Trump is strongly supporting Taiwan’s application to rejoin the World Health Organisation.

But the U.S. cannot help Hong Kong people in the same way.

As the proverb says: “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.

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