The 1997 handover of Hong Kong from Britain to the People’s Republic of China marked the end of Western colonial rule in the region. Optimistic Western policy hands hoped that the final mending of the “unequal treaties,” as they were called by the Chinese Communist Party, would initiate Beijing’s integration into the rules-based world order.
Recent events in Hong Kong put paid to this hope.
The days of China’s “peaceful rise,” when the CCP steadfastly denied its hegemonic ambitions, are long gone. In light of China’s clampdown on Hong Kong, the transfer of the autonomous region now appears to have entailed swapping one imperial government for another. As if to remove any doubt, China’s National People’s Congress bypassed the Hong Kong Legislative Council this week and imposed a new national-security law. The law, which bans all “seditious activity,” effectively nullifies the Hong Kong Basic Law according to which the territory is guaranteed autonomy from the Mainland until 2047.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded appropriately in announcing that, under the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act passed last year, Washington would no longer consider Hong Kong independent of China. The White House will reconsider the privileges and immunities granted to the autonomous region, including its preferential trade status, visa exemptions, and flexible foreign-exchange regime.
Critics argue that the measures will cause undue economic harm to the region. Hong Kong’s economy will suffer, but the millions of Hong Kongers who have taken to the streets in protest have demonstrated in no uncertain terms that they value freedom over GDP growth. Indeed, the rule of law is what allowed Hong Kong to build a thriving economy in the first place. The short-term harms from reduced trade and investment pale in comparison to the disaster of Mainland dominance of Hong Kong. Worse, allowing China to violate the 1984 Sino–British Joint Declaration, registered at the U.N., will send a signal that the U.S. is unwilling to stand by a basic element of the international order.
In any event, the White House ultimately has little choice. Congress has all but required the administration to decertify Hong Kong’s autonomous status in this circumstance. The legislation also calls for sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for Hong Kong’s suppression, a measure that the White House should undertake as Beijing moves to implement the law.
We obviously also need a strategy to combat Chinese belligerence elsewhere. Control of Hong Kong is only one step in China’s quest to “occupy a central position in the world,” as Chinese president Xi Jinping has put it. The Hong Kong security law coincides with increasingly aggressive naval exercises in the South and East China Seas and a sudden military buildup on the Sino–Indian border. The Chinese have also made clear their intention to annex Taiwan, and show no signs of rolling back their programs of industrial espionage and anti-competitive trade practices. The White House must resist China on all fronts.
The administration should mobilize our allies in the fight. As Pompeo made his announcement, German chancellor Angela Merkel said that the European Union has a “great strategic interest” in cooperating with China. Neither have the British, who designed the transfer of Hong Kong, shown much interest in pushing back on Chinese aggression. European leaders are enticed by the economic benefits of cooperating with Beijing, and it will require a deft diplomatic touch to persuade them to take a more strategically sound posture.
Hong Kong is the last redoubt of freedom and decency in China’s contiguous territory. The White House should do everything reasonably within its power to try to safeguard it.