2021-03-10 18:58:25 UTC
Op-Ed: China may be overplaying its hand in its crackdown on Hong Kong
Masked crowds on a street hold up their fingers during a demonstration
Democracy activists in Hong Kong took to the streets in July 2020 to
protest the new national security law imposed by China. Since then,
Chinese repression has increased.
(Vincent Yu / Associated Press)
By MINXIN PEI
MARCH 8, 2021 10:37 PM PT
The year has begun darkly for the people of Hong Kong. On Feb. 16, nine
pro-democracy activists, including 82-year-old Martin Lee, the revered
longtime leader of the city’s Democratic Party, went on trial facing
charges of illegal assembly.
A week later, the Hong Kong government announced that it would enact a
law allowing only “patriots” to serve on district councils, the lowest
level of the city’s administrative apparatus, with responsibilities that
include sanitation and traffic. This will probably result in the
expulsion of democratically elected council members and the
disqualification of future candidates deemed disloyal to the ruling
Communist Party of China.
Then, on Feb. 28, in the most sweeping crackdown yet since China imposed
a draconian national security law on the former British colony in July,
the Hong Kong authorities charged 47 leaders of the city’s pro-democracy
movement with “conspiracy to commit subversion” under the law. Because
the law rigs the trial process to ensure conviction, these activists
face the prospect of years in prison.
Several considerations may have prompted Chinese President Xi Jinping to
escalate the repression in the semiautonomous territory. For starters,
indications that the national security law has succeeded in instilling
the rule of fear in the once-defiant city may be encouraging Xi to try
to decapitate Hong Kong’s pro-democracy forces.
Moreover, the West’s response — until now limited to diplomatic
denunciations and sanctions against a small number of senior Chinese and
Hong Kong officials — to China’s imposition of the national security law
has not really hurt the government in Beijing. Chinese leaders also
appear to have drawn a line in dealing with President Biden: China’s
sovereign prerogatives in Hong Kong and Xinjiang are nonnegotiable.
China will do as it pleases in those places, despite Biden’s warning of
“repercussions” for human rights abuses.
But Xi may have underestimated the costs of his actions in Hong Kong.
This latest spate of prosecutions of pro-democracy activists, coupled
with a lack of goodwill gestures from China to improve ties with the
United States, will most probably harden Biden’s stance.
For the time being, the Biden administration wants to avoid a frontal
collision with China, because it must first attend to domestic
priorities such as tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and fostering economic
recovery. As Biden’s advisors weigh the best approach to China, the
Chinese Community Party’s intensifying crackdown in Hong Kong will
undermine advocates of a more nuanced and less confrontational approach
while vindicating those convinced that only a hard-line position can
modify Chinese behavior.
When the 47 pro-democracy activists are convicted and sentenced to long
prison terms, bilateral relations could resume their dangerous downward
spiral. Chinese repression in Hong Kong will make it much easier for
Biden to recruit wavering Western democracies as allies.
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Currently, many European countries are hesitant about becoming
full-fledged partners in a new U.S.-led anti-China coalition. Aside from
their extensive commercial interests in China, they worry that an
unrestrained U.S.-China geopolitical rivalry could plunge the world into
a new cold war, disrupt and fragment the global economy, and doom any
hope of combating climate change.
But European leaders ultimately must respond to voters, many of whom
care deeply about human rights and are demanding tougher policies toward
China. It will not be long before Germany and France, in particular,
find it untenable to maintain a policy that relies on strategic
neutrality to preserve their economic interests in China. When European
democracies finally join the Biden administration’s anti-China
coalition, the credit should go to Xi.
In the short term, the U.S. and its allies cannot easily undermine
Chinese efforts to build Hong Kong into a financial center capable of
rivaling New York and London. After all, financial sanctions, such as a
ban on investing in companies listed there, would cause chaos in global
markets. But they still have a wide array of other options to squeeze China.
Decoupling China from global technology supply chains currently seems
inconceivable but could become a reality if the coalition agrees to a
new arrangement similar to the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral
Export Controls, which choked off Western technology transfers to the
Soviet bloc during the Cold War. Western democracies could also deny
Chinese leaders the international prestige they seek by curtailing
high-level exchanges and contesting Chinese influence in multilateral
organizations. And sheltering victims of China’s crackdown in Hong Kong
would be both a humanitarian gesture and a forceful rebuke of Chinese
Chinese leaders are most likely aware of these consequences as they
weigh their options in Hong Kong. They have settled on an
ultra-hard-line course in the belief that its costs are bearable.
Arguably, their gambit has paid off so far. But, by throwing down the
gauntlet to the Biden administration and its allies, China may be
overplaying its hand.
Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and
a nonresident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United