Hong Kong in the cross-hairs of both China and the U.S.

June 02, 2020 08:59
Photo: Reuters

Hong Kong, which prospered for decades as the gateway between China and the West, acts today as the common punching bag for both China and the United States as each focuses on different targets in the city to punish.

Ironically, both China and the United States say that they have the best interests of Hong Kong people at heart, yet the Hong Kong people are fearful of what the result might be in terms of their political rights and freedoms, in the case of Chinese actions, and their economic well-being, in the case of American sanctions.

The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, the Chinese parliament, is drafting a law to be promulgated in Hong Kong.

Beijing is justifying its action on the ground of the need for national security legislation in Hong Kong against crimes such as “secession, subversion of state power, terrorism and acts that endanger national security,” and the law is meant to “prevent, stop and punish” perpetrators.

The United States has announced that the imposition of such a law on Hong Kong means that the city is no longer autonomous. Thus, Washington plans to revoke Hong Kong’s preferential treatment across the board, including its treatment as a separate customs territory from China; in addition, it will sanction Hong Kong officials “directly or indirectly involved” in eroding the city’s autonomy.

Autonomy is certainly being narrowed. The Ministry of Public Security in Beijing has announced that it is ready to “guide” the Hong Kong police force. Separately, teachers are being recruited across China to “guide” education in Hong Kong, in kindergartens, primary and secondary schools.

While it is ostensibly meant to safeguard national security, there is much concern that, as in mainland China, such legislation can be used to suppress free expression and to infringe human rights.

Already, pressure is being put on individuals and companies to fall in line, with former Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying called out HSBC as the bank hasn’t come out in support of national security legislation.

China has an arguable case for drafting legislation for Hong Kong. Attempts to do so in Hong Kong both before and after the 1997 handover failed.

The fear is that such legislation will be used to silence dissent and erode rights and freedoms.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam was asked at a press conference for assurances that the new law would not impact ordinary residents but just “a tiny number of people.” She responded that those who worry “will have to wait for the details” of the legislation.

It is odd that as Chief Executive, the supposed representative of the 7.5 million people of Hong Kong, she says nothing about doing her utmost to preserve her people’s rights and freedoms. At the very least, she should say that her administration will do what it can to make the drafting process transparent.

The 12-member Basic Law Committee, half of whom are from Hong Kong, should help the NPCSC to achieve the law’s aims, but no more.

Moreover, those with concerns should not just wait for details to be unveiled but should articulate their worries now. The Chinese authorities should be willing to listen. Anyone with a stake in Hong Kong, including its residents and chambers of commerce, should make their concerns known.

While the American president, Donald Trump, has announced that the United States will end special treatment of Hong Kong, he has provided no details as to when this will happen. But he did leave open the possibility of “exceptions.”

China can influence American actions. If the new law is carefully drafted so as to have minimal impact on rights and freedoms, then Washington will have less reason to impose sanctions. This is not a question of Beijing bowing to western pressure but of doing what is best for all parties, including both mainland China and Hong Kong. And if the United States really wants to help the people of Hong Kong, it should as far as possible refrain from taking actions that would hurt Hong Kong more than they hurt China.

The ball is now in China’s court. It is important that, in the coming weeks, Chinese officials involved in the drafting process listen carefully so that, when the bill is promulgated, it will be seen as a law defending national security and nothing more.

If China wants to enhance its image in the world through soft power, this is certainly one of the best ways to do it.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.