Less than six months later, though, there’s little Lam can do to dress up the crisis unraveling her city. On Thursday, China’s National People’s Congress approved a plan to move forward with a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong that many fear will squelch the former British colony’s already waning autonomy. Though the legislation has yet to be formalized, it is expected to drastically curtail Hong Kong’s political freedoms, including measures that could criminalize protest and criticism of Beijing.
Lam and her pro-Beijing allies in Hong Kong argue the move is necessary to preserve law and order in the wake of a year of tensions and clashes between pro-democracy protesters and the city’s local authorities. Critics contend that it’s just the latest, if most dramatic, example of China disregarding Hong Kong’s freedoms and weakening the “one country, two systems” political model that followed the British handover in 1997.
“Much of the present uproar over Beijing’s latest move is not just about the ‘what’ but the ‘how,’ ” wrote Hong Kong-based journalist Holmes Chan. “Indeed, Hong Kong’s own constitutional text has always contained an article about national security, but it clearly states that the city should ‘enact laws on its own’. But overnight, Hong Kong’s legislature was cast aside, with Beijing opting for a backdoor option … that lets it unilaterally apply certain national laws to the city.”
The rest of the world is paying attention. The governments of the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia jointly condemned the decision to impose the law, which they warned in a statement endangered the system that made Hong Kong “so prosperous.”
“If China destroys the rule of law in Hong Kong it will ruin the city’s chances of continuing to be a great international financial hub that mediates about two-thirds of the direct investment in and out of China,” wrote Chris Patten, the city’s last British governor. He urged Britain and its partners in the Group of Seven nations, which will convene virtually next month, to take a stand against a Chinese regime “that is an enemy of open societies everywhere.”
As questions mount over the city’s political and economic future, British officials are being pressed to extend visa rights to hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers born in the colonial era. Officials in Taiwan, where sympathy for Hong Kong’s plight featured in the recent presidential election, are also finalizing details on a plan to provide asylum and other assistance to Hong Kong activists.
Hong Kong’s identity as one of the world’s preeminent entrepôts is not just endangered by Beijing’s overreach. On Wednesday, the Trump administration through Secretary of State Mike Pompeo notified Congress that Hong Kong may no longer merit favorable treatment from the United States compared with mainland China, a long-standing status quo that, among other things, has shielded Hong Kong entities from the Trump administration’s punitive trade war.
“That would allow the U.S. government to impose the same tariffs on goods from Hong Kong that [President] Trump imposed on Chinese products, a move that could imperil his already embattled trade deal with China,” wrote my colleague David J. Lynch. “The White House has not said whether it will take this step, but Trump has signaled anger with Chinese leaders over the initial coronavirus outbreak and a desire to retaliate.”
Trump is slated to speak on China at a news conference on Friday. The administration’s tough line has a degree of bipartisan support, with Washington lawmakers from both parties issuing statements this week condemning China. On Wednesday, the House passed legislation authorizing sanctions against Chinese officials involved in the mass incarceration program of more than 1 million people from Turkic Muslim minority groups in China’s far-western region of Xinjiang. Congress is also moving legislation that could force Chinese firms to delist from the New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq.
There’s no indication that Beijing is cowed by the backlash. At a time when the pandemic has significantly affected the country’s economy, China’s leadership probably sees a hard-line approach to Hong Kong as a maneuver that plays to nationalist sentiment at home. It’s also in keeping with the more broadly aggressive posture taken under Chinese President Xi Jinping, from the new social media spats triggered by his diplomats to the Chinese military’s provocative movements along the disputed Himalayan border with India.
“China now appears to have given up hope of having stable ties with the U.S. under the Trump administration,” Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told my colleagues. “China’s behavior against Hong Kong, pressure on Taiwan and its global disinformation campaign all suggest that Beijing could care less about U.S. reactions to its decisions.”
It’s a predicament that somewhat mirrors the White House’s sweeping anti-Chinese position in the depths of a public health crisis it, too, has failed to adequately manage. “This is another case in which we see a certain kind of strange parallelism between the two ‘make my country great again’ leaders, even though they present themselves as opposites,” Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a China scholar and author of “Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink,” told Today’s WorldView.
Meanwhile, despite the threat of new crackdowns, Hong Kong’s protesters aren’t giving up. “Forfeiting Hong Kong is not an option as this is the place we call home: there is no future for us if our home is compromised,” wrote pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong and Glacier Kwong. “The fight for democracy and human rights is one both Hong Kong-ers and the world have to win.”