Under the thuggish strongman Xi Jinping (習近平, b. 1953), China has launched a more aggressive regional policy that threatens to upend the recent long stretch of tranquility enjoyed in East Asia. Chinese President Xi has ratcheted up tension with Japan, almost as if World War II had never ended, despite recent lulls. Relations with Vietnam remain unsettled. Xi’s expansive claims to the South China Sea have angered both littoral states and the United States, despite an international legal ruling that dismissed Chinese assertions of sovereignty there. Tensions have spiked over Taiwan, again despite a prudent and low-key approach on the part of the country’s democratically elected leader. And now there is a totally avoidable rise in tension over Hong Kong.
Let’s recall the late Chinese President Deng Xiaoping’s pledge that Hong Kong could enjoy 50 years of a great deal of autonomy under “one country, two systems.” This was also meant to reassure the people of Taiwan, in the wake of America’s diplomatic shift to China in 1979, that closer ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) could be relatively risk-free. It came as negotiations between the United Kingdom (UK) and China on Hong Kong’s future reached a crescendo in the early 1980s. Those two countries’ formal agreement in 1984 included a pledge that both Hong Kong and Taiwan could enjoy a great deal of autonomy for at least 50 years, putting off the agreement on an eventual return to full Chinese sovereignty.
The people of Hong Kong had little option but to go along with the deal London and Beijing worked out, though they did cling to the solemn pledges issued at the time. After a period of market volatility, things settled down, and—as the pundits all predicted—Hong Kong went back to doing what it did best: make money.
There have been some rough spots between Beijing and Hong Kong since 1997, to be sure. Efforts, pressed by Beijing, to pass a sweeping security law some 15 years ago brought huge crowds into the streets of Hong Kong, until China’s leaders backed down. And again, in 2014 the people of Hong Kong demanded more transparent election in what then became the Umbrella Movement. So why Beijing is opening this can of worms again, less than halfway through the vaunted 50 years of broad autonomy Deng promised Margaret Thatcher?
The rise of China over the past 40 years arguably has been a major factor in the current events in Hong Kong. The unique role of Hong Kong as an effective offshore financial and commercial hub managing trade and business into China proper has largely faded, as comparable financial centers have emerged in Guangdong’s Pearl River delta, as well as Shanghai, Chongqing, and Tianjin. The widespread poverty that was Mao’s great legacy has been transformed by Deng’s astute economic policies. A middle class has begun to emerge in China. This was all good news.
Xi Jinping appeared to be a consensus choice to replace Hu Jintao as top leader of the PRC ten years ago. Many presumed this son of a high-ranking communist cadre would continue the moderate policies of his predecessors. Yet, here we are today, with Mr. Xi taking on quasi-imperial airs, declaring himself ruler for life and sidelining many of the people who facilitated his rise to power. At age 66, he could be around for a long time.
It is in that context that we are seeing the steady deterioration of Hong Kong’s autonomous status today. Only 22 years into the pledged 50 years of autonomy, Beijing’s hand there seems heavier than ever. True, the people of Hong Kong have some indirect say in who leads them; but China holds most of the trump cards. It enjoys final approval over the top leader there, and has increasingly been seen to be dictating the overall course of political life from behind the curtain.
There is little doubt China aspires to stricter controls over the political life in the autonomous territory. Despite the failure of the security law 15 years ago that brought then Chief Executive C. H. Tung’s downfall, here we see Beijing trying again to dictate legislation designed to curtail the freedom of Hong Kong’s seven million people to chart their own course.
I rather liked Carrie Lam, the current chief executive of Hong Kong since 2017, in my regular dealings with her when I served as US Consul General in Hong Kong from 2010 to 2013. She was accessible and moderate in her views. She reflected a deep understanding of Hong Kong’s political system, and had worked her way up to the deputy chief executive job during my tenure there. So I can only attribute intense pressure from Beijing in trying to understand Chief Executive Lam’s reckless decision to revive the idea of an extradition law widely known to be unpopular with her local constituents.
Why Xi Jingping is in such a hurry to exercise more control over Hong Kong is anyone’s guess. But I think Xi badly miscalculated his actions in the recent events in Hong Kong. For the young people of Hong Kong, 2047—the 50 year mark since Hong Kong was transferred from London to Beijing’s control that Deng Xiaoping promised would be years of autonomy for Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” framework—is no abstraction, but their future. Business interests are also rattled, which could stimulate financial flight and perhaps see major firms shifting their operations south to the more predictable political climes of Singapore.
Closer to home, the message of Beijing’s ham-handed tactics in Hong Kong could not be clearer to friends in Taiwan. Xi’s China remains an autocratic and untrustworthy bully. Democratic Taiwan knows it has a reliable partner in the United States, and needs to take even greater care to shore up its defenses against the threats and blandishments of the “People’s” Republic of China.
The size and sustainability of the crowds suggest this is not going to die down soon, though the threat of violence, or even intervention by the PLA garrison stationed in Hong Kong should serve as curbs to the still largely peaceful crowds that have been demonstrating there. Carrie Lam has been circumspect, but has not yet met the key demand of protesters – that she formally withdraw the proposal for an extradition agreement with China.
Taiwan citizens have taken to the streets in vocal support of the democracy protesters in Hong Kong. Events in Hong Kong appear to have improved Tsai Ing-wen’s prospects, as her more pro-Chinese KMT rivals have been put on the defensive. There is still a long way to January’s elections, but a second term seems much more likely for Tsai than it did just a few months ago. Meanwhile Washington has sent the right signals to both Hong Kong and Beijing, though President Trump’s continuing bromance with Xi is a wild card factor.
The main point: Beijing’s intense pressure may be the reason for Carrie Lam’s reckless decision to revive the idea of an extradition law. The ongoing political crisis in Hong Kong will likely have implications for Taiwan and beyond.