How Will the West Respond to China’s Nefarious Hong Kong Crackdown?
In 1997, after 156 years of British rule, the United Kingdom transferred responsibility for the city-state of Hong Kong to China. Twenty-three years later, in 2020, China enacted a security law that extends its powers over Hong Kong in contravention of the terms of that transfer.
In doing so, Beijing is signaling its determination to expand its area of control and influence even in the face of international criticism.
Beijing took this step without consulting the local parliament, as was required by the transfer agreement. It also did so in defiance of both inevitable international criticism and the rioting and protests that have occurred in Hong Kong in recent months.
Under the new law, 7.5 million Hong Kong residents will be subject to restrictions imposed on Chinese residents, including a life sentence for “subversion” — a routine indictment used by the Chinese government to imprison and silence its opponents and human rights activists. This is probably the most significant political change in Hong Kong since its transfer to China.
Why has Beijing chosen this moment to impose the law? China is, after all, still trying to deal with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, which erupted in Wuhan. It is also engrossed in border battles with India and Russia, even as it gets more deeply involved in an expanding competition with the US for global hegemony.
Beijing did this because it can, and because it wants to continue to expand its sphere of influence.
The Chinese have been paying close attention to Washington’s response to their conduct for some time, from the oppression of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang to China’s aggressive operations in the South China Sea, to the eruption of the global coronavirus crisis, which was largely caused by China’s initial blunders. Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, said Washington has failed to understand China’s international conduct, calling it “the greatest failure of US foreign policy since the 1930s.”
In every one of the areas listed above, Beijing came out virtually unscathed. This bolstered its confidence that it could do whatever it wants to bring Hong Kong into line.
By imposing the security law on Hong Kong, Xi Jinping’s China is signaling that it will not tolerate any criticism of its conduct, whether internal or external. As Zhang Xiaoming, deputy head of the Chinese Office of Hong Kong and Macau, put it in response to sanctions imposed by the US Senate on Beijing: “Some countries are threatening us with sanctions. I would say this is the logic of bandits. … Long gone are the days when we Chinese had to takes cues from others.”
The question is whether the Western nations will be able to read the writing on the wall or continue to keep their heads in the sand.
Roie Yellinek is a PhD student at Bar-Ilan University, a doctoral researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.
A version of this article was originally published by The BESA Center.