That China’s Xi Jinping is taking more steps to bring Hong Kong under the central government’s control should come as no surprise. President Xi has long made clear that he regards the enclave’s freedoms as a Western thorn in his side. With the world fixated on the coronavirus pandemic, with relations with the United States at a low, and with 3,000 delegates gathered in Beijing for the annual propaganda-fest of the National People’s Congress, he evidently concluded that this was the time to pounce, proposing a national security law that could allow Chinese authorities to crack down on civil liberties in Hong Kong.
The Trump administration was left with no option but to acknowledge the new reality. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formally advised Congress that the American government no longer believes that Hong Kong has sufficient autonomy from Beijing, a decertification that opens the way to ending all or some of the territory’s special trade and economic privileges.
How this latest showdown plays out could have major ramifications for the future of Taiwan and for China’s behavior in its neighborhood and the world. The question is whether President Trump has the leverage, support or stomach for the fight.
Now in his eighth year as China’s leader, Mr. Xi has shown that he is not easily dissuaded from his nationalist agenda. His treatment of dissidents and minorities like the Uighurs make clear that he has no tolerance for any challenge to the Communist Party’s rule, and, as China’s economy and military have grown, Mr. Xi has shown a greater readiness to take risks. Chinese vessels have harassed foreign ships and installations in disputed waters. Beijing pointedly dropped “peaceful” from its annual call for unification with Taiwan. And, if there was a time when Hong Kong was deemed indispensable for China’s access to foreign capital, the country now has many alternatives on the mainland.
China’s efforts to rein in Hong Kong have faced massive and courageous resistance from the people of the city, who have lived all their lives with Western-style freedoms and have taken to the streets in vast numbers to protest attempts to bring them under the repressive rule of Beijing. The “umbrella” movement of 2014, and the demonstrations that have roiled Hong Kong over the past year, have attracted the attention, admiration and support of freedom-loving people around the world.
The resistance has compelled China and its handpicked administrators in Hong Kong, led by the embattled Carrie Lam, to make tactical retreats at times, but never for long. At her weekly news conference, Ms. Lam dutifully argued that the proposed legislation would not curtail the rights of Hong Kongers, which under the 1997 agreement with Britain were to be unchanged for 50 years, but rather was a “responsible” move to protect the law-abiding majority.
Nobody believes that. Least of all, evidently, those behind the new measures. A Chinese representative in Hong Kong declared that freedom of the press would not be limited, and then warned against using that freedom as a “pretext” to undermine security. Ms. Lam was equally Orwellian: “We are a very free society, so for the time being, people have the freedom to say whatever they want to say.”
There is little doubt that the resolution will be adopted unanimously by the National People’s Congress on Thursday. The actual law will take some time to draft, possibly a few months, and that gives time to the United States, Britain (the former colonial power) and other interested democracies such as Japan, Australia and the European Union to mount a campaign in support of the Hong Kongers.
Mr. Pompeo’s announcement clears the way for lifting Hong Kong’s special privileges, but Beijing seems prepared for this, and it would also hurt the people of Hong Kong and the many American and other foreign businesses active there. Sanctions against China are another option, but the U.S.-China tariff war launched by Mr. Trump in 2018 has already hurt the American economy, and the Covid-19 pandemic would probably make Washington even less keen to get into a new tit-for-tat tussle with China.
Then there’s Mr. Trump himself. Though he and his lieutenants have made China-bashing over the coronavirus outbreak a central theme in their re-election campaign, and Mr. Trump said last week he’d react “very strongly” to any power grab, the president has never shown much concern for Hong Kong protests against China.
Of his many tweets over the three-day Memorial Day weekend, when the Hong Kong issue was at the top of the news, none was about Hong Kong. During the Hong Kong protests of 2014, Mr. Trump tweeted one of his few clear statements on the plight of the territory: “President Obama should stay out of the Hong Kong protests, we have enough problems in our own country!”
Mr. Trump may not be able to stay out for long if the protests are more violently suppressed. And it is not only the yearning for democracy among the people of Hong Kong that is at stake here. If Mr. Xi’s calculus is borne out and he weathers the outcry over Hong Kong, he will continue pursuing his ambition to extend his control to Taiwan and the South China Sea.
America and its allies may not have the levers to stop the new China in its tracks, but they do have ways to let Mr. Xi and his comrades know that they will exact a price for limiting freedoms in Hong Kong.