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Can the World Unite to Rescue Hong Kong?

Updated: May 28

Climate change, big tech, COVID-19. These are three enormous, future-defining issues that the world has failed to reach a consensus on thus far. If the global response (or lack thereof) to these problems is anything to go by, what chance does Hong Kong have of receiving the multilateral support it so desperately needs as China steps up its assault on its freedoms? As Hong Kongers took to the streets en masse again on Sunday to protest the latest nail being hammered into the city’s proverbial coffin by Beijing, there appeared to be few causes for optimism for its future. 

Why has the situation flared up again in Hong Kong? 

Hong Kong was once again thrust into the spotlight last week as China’s National People’s Congress - effectively the highest organ of state power in China - announced a new national security law to be imposed on the city. The law will bypass Hong Kong’s legislature and make secession (breaking away from China), subversion (undermining the central government), terrorism (using violence or intimidation against people), and foreign interference in Hong Kong criminal acts. Under the terms agreed in the Joint Declaration between the UK and China, which formed the basis for how Hong Kong was to be governed for 50 years following its handover in 1997, China was granted control of the Special Administrative Region’s foreign affairs and defense. This national security law is an attempt by China to bring the mass protests that - in the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) eyes - have plagued Hong Kong for the past year under its direct jurisdiction. China could even have its own law enforcement stationed within Hong Kong, a prospect that would have seemed reprehensible to those on the non-Chinese side who drew up the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ model designed to prevent Hong Kong being swallowed up by authoritarianism.

Sunday's protesting of the national security law in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong

Why is the national security law being introduced at this juncture?

It’s no secret that Beijing has seen the pro-democracy protests as a challenge to its rule that it is not willing to tolerate. Instead of cracking down on Hong Kongers' dissent using its own might, however, the CCP learnt its lesson from the international backlash it received after Tiananmen Square and deployed Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and her government (which, for all intents and purposes, Beijing appoints) as puppets to quash those who took to the streets to demand the freedoms they have been promised. Cultivating a gracious, benign image is something the CCP sees as key to achieving its long-term hegemonic goals. It did not want the world’s eyes fixed on China for the wrong reasons and it did not want foreign capital or appetites for Chinese-made goods to come under threat as a result of being seen to crack down on human rights in Hong Kong.

Now, however, the world’s attention is fully focused on the enduring battle against COVID-19. It can be presumed with some assurance that even the most sagacious of CCP officials couldn’t have foreseen how the virus, as it was tearing through Wuhan in January, would act as the perfect smokescreen to wrestle back authority over Hong Kong. The CCP signalled its intentions to derail the pro-democracy movement in April when Hong Kong’s “Father of Democracy”, 70 year old Martin Lee, was arrested along with other high-profile democracy activists for partaking in the (peaceful) protests last summer. Hong Kong’s legislative council was then plunged into chaos as pro-Beijing and pro-democracy candidates physically clashed over pro-Beijing politician Starry Lee’s illegal seizure of the Chair seat. Over the last week, China reported next to no new cases of COVID-19 and was able to look on smugly at embattled western leaders consumed by questions over their handling of the virus and the economic turmoil their nations face. Add into the mix that Hong Kongers are still prohibited from congregating in groups of larger than eight and the CCP recognised it had the perfect conditions for ramping up repression. 

Pro-democracy MP Lam Cheuk-ting was removed by legislative council security as the pro-Beijing camp commandeered control

Why must the world take action?

The humanitarian case for intervention in situations like Hong Kong’s can often be overlooked as governments attempt to play geopolitical chess. Hong Kongers have never really had a say over their future and yet they were promised a high degree of autonomy and democracy - until 2047, at least - that is now being taken away from them. Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly were supposed to be safeguarded under the aforementioned Joint Declaration - now Hong Kongers are greeted with tear gas and water cannons by police whenever they assemble to voice their discontent with the ruling powers. Moreover, journalists have not been spared from police brutality and there have been cases of medical workers being prohibited from coming to the aid of injured protesters. The people of Hong Kong share the universal values of freedom and human rights that have been agreed upon as pivotal in maintaining world peace since World War II - they deserve help as these values come under siege. 

More pressingly, perhaps, is the necessity for the international community to set a firm precedent of showing China that violating international agreements will not be tolerated moving forward. Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own despite having never been under CCP rule, will immediately feel more vulnerable after the forcing through of this law. Why not draw the line clearly and absolutely before China contemplates sending troops across the Taiwan Strait (as it has suggested it would be prepared to do)? China continues to demonstrate a pattern of bullying behaviour - from placing tariffs on Australian beef due to its calls for an independent investigation into COVID-19 to threatening the EU for criticising its handling of the outbreak - and senses an opening to extend its power. The ways in which it will do so, beginning with tightening its grip on Hong Kong, could be irreversible for the West if it does not take action now. 

A protester receives urgent medical assistance for injuries suffered in August 2019

What actions do world leaders have at their disposal?

If anything can be learnt from dealing with China during this century, it’s that those seeking to keep it in check must join forces. The British government, which has a direct responsibility to ensure the terms of the legally binding Joint Declaration are adhered to, initially issued a feeble statement after the national security law was announced, saying it was “monitoring the situation in Hong Kong”. Releasing a joint statement with Australia and Canada the following day, accusing China of flouting UN human rights conventions, was a step in the right direction. A public letter of condemnation, drafted by ex-Hong Kong governor Chris Patten and former Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind and signed by over 200 parliamentarians across 23 countries on Saturday, further emphasised the breadth of support for the preservation of Hong Kong’s autonomy by calling for “sympathetic governments to unite against this flagrant breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration”. These governments now need to prove that they are not just paying lip service to coming to Hong Kong’s aid. First and foremost, they should not rule out sharing the responsibility of offering sanctuary to refugees from Hong Kong after the national security law comes into force next month. 

The Trump administration has gone out of its way to extricate the US from global leadership, but it too has a vested interest in being seen to actively contain Beijing’s encroachments as anti-China sentiment surges domestically during the fallout over COVID-19. The US should take the lead in stringently enforcing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act that was passed through Congress in late 2019, thereby sanctioning CCP officials who have played a role in bulldozing Hong Kong’s status as an autonomous territory. Other countries with significant interests in the region, such as the UK, Japan and Canada, could follow suit in enacting similar bills to pressurise China into backing off. Despite the US’s reluctance to cooperate with multilateral bodies - especially following the WHO’s alleged collusion with China in covering up the COVID-19 outbeak - the UN Human Rights Committee must also be encouraged to step up its monitoring of Hong Kong’s autonomous status.

If all else fails, perhaps it’s time for the world to truly sever ties with Hong Kong as we know it. This approach has been mooted amongst China hawks in the US who advocate revoking Hong Kong’s special economic status. China’s rivals could, in unison, stop recognising Hong Kong’s as being separate from China as a customs territory, financial system, and shipping system and move operations to other locations in East Asia such as Taiwan and Singapore. UK-based charity Hong Kong Watch explains how sorely this would hurt China, who still benefits considerably from Hong Kong’s free flow of capital and information and rule of law. This strategy only works if countries are able to work together, otherwise it's easy to envisage western powers trying to undercut one another to establish a competitive advantage in the territory as the CCP bats its eyelashes towards those who will comply with its regime. For too long has greed dictated that nations turn a blind eye to China’s misdeeds. 

Chris Patten, Hong Kong's last governor and a vocal advocate for the city's democratic rights

Whatever measures those fighting Hong Kong’s corner end up taking, Beijing may see the consequences as an acceptable price to pay for a political victory so close to home. It would,

obviously, represent a travesty for Hong Kong residents - and global democracy - if Hong Kong were to become just another Chinese city. World leaders may have a poor recent track record of agreeing upon common action, but the pandemic that China intends to use as a smokescreen has, paradoxically, opened their eyes to its unscrupulous undermining of the rules-based order. Thus, Hong Kong should not be seen as an irretrievable, tragic case, but the first major opportunity to lay down a cohesive marker to Beijing. “The world is watching” has been one of the pro-democracy camp’s popular slogans - now is the time to show that it is willing and able to act upon what it sees.


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