May 26, 2020
In April 2017, President Trump hosted his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping for a two-day summit at the Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. After their meeting, Mr. Trump spoke of “tremendous progress” in the U.S.-China relationship. A year later, the Trump administration announced sweeping tariffs on Chinese imports. The trade war escalated with more tariffs and Chinese retaliation. In December 2018, the chief financial officer Huawei was arrested in Canada at Washington’s request. The trade war intensified. In November 2019, President Trump signed a bill supporting Hong Kong protesters.
At present, the focus is on Hong Kong because China plans to push through, at this year’s China’s National People’s Congress, sweeping national security laws for Hong Kong to bar subversion, separatism or acts of foreign interference against the central government. Critics say this will effectively end the territory’s democracy and autonomy.
On May 22, Secretary Pompeo issued a statement saying,
“The decision to bypass Hong Kong’s well-established legislative processes and ignore the will of the people of Hong Kong would be a death knell for the high degree of autonomy Beijing promised for Hong Kong under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a U.N.-filed agreement…”
Two days later he spoke to Sky News Australia. He referred to “decades of Western tolerance of behaviors that we don’t accept from anyplace else”, Chinese Communist Party’s desire to have “hegemonic influence around the world”, and to “efforts to use government state-sponsored enterprises to achieve political and defense and security outcomes.”
These are comments likely to boomerang if post-Cold War records of major power were to become yet another topic of controversy. And, it seems that the anti-China rhetoric is also related, to a certain extent, to domestic politics and upcoming U.S. presidential election. The U.K., former colonial power, has so far avoided being dragged in. The exception was the last British governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten who said the Hong Kong people have been betrayed by China.
Chinese officials are reacting to such statements in more measured language. Because China’s public diplomacy is reserved, more cautious. After all, a former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said, “No other country can claim so long a continuous civilization, or such an intimate link to its ancient past and classical principles of strategy and statesmanship.” Indeed China, while rising as a global power, has wisely refrained from getting involved in international conflicts and has remained predictable by today’s international standards.
Hong Kong remained a part of the Chinese Empire for 2,000 years. Between 1842 and 1860, during the First and Second Opium Wars, Britain seized two of the three main regions which constitute today’s Hong Kong: Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsula. At the time, China was trying to stop British drug traffickers from illegally smuggling opium into China. And, the British Empire was after better access to the Chinese market.
The First Opium War marked the beginning of what the Chinese later called the “century of humiliation”.
Finally, on July 1, 1898, the British Empire negotiated the Second Convention of Peking with China leasing the New Territories. The lease was set to expire in 99 years, meaning that China expected Britain to hand the region back on July 1, 1997.
At midnight on July 1, 1997, Hong Kong returned to Chinese control after a century and a half of British colonial rule. Thus, started the “one country, two systems” relationship between China and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region that is supposed to last until 2047. Hong Kong Joint Declaration between Britain and China served as a model for Macao. On December 20, 1999, Macau also became a special administrative region under Chinese sovereignty, as Hong Kong had in 1997.
Hong Kong has enjoyed enviable democracy and prosperity for decades. It has firmly established itself as a major international trading and financial center. It has been ranked as the world’s freest economy for years. Last year, its per capita on a purchasing power parity basis (GDP PPP) was 64,928 dollars. Interestingly, in some global statistics it is wrongly listed as a “country”. “Wrongly” because while China is not a democratic country, Hong Kong is Chinese territory.
Can one visualize by the widest stretch of imagination, Mexico’s Veracruz, America’s Boston, or Charleston enjoying “special administrative region” status based on agreements with colonial powers?
Agreeing to special administrative status for Hong Kong has proved a wise choice for both China and colonial powers. This is not an ad infinitum arrangement but one they should try to preserve.
Until now, the Chinese leadership has appeared unwilling to take dramatic action in Hong Kong. Chinese troops have been garrisoned in Hong Kong since its handover to Chinese rule in 1997, but as the CNN has reported the PLA has historically kept a low profile although this began to change during last year’s anti-government unrest. Even after the passage of the proposed legislation they may continue to act with caution.
Much would depend on the attitude of the Hong Kong protest movement. Because, there are redlines beyond what is said in the agreement between China and Britain on the future of Hong Kong which they cannot totally disregard. Although these may not have been stated with precision, their essence is no secret. In continuing their protests, they must take care to avoid having to admit in the future that they have overreached. They must not lose sight of the fact that Hong Kong’s democracy can serve as a source of inspiration for Chinese people during time when democracy’s decline is a current topic.
Finally, they also need to see that the confrontation over Hong Kong is only a reflection, perhaps a subtitle of the wider competition between the US and China for global supremacy/ascendancy.
Sadly, the hope that the advent of King Covid XIX would unite a divided world and polarized countries has proved an illusion.