Source: Michael Curtis

The assertion of Chinese aggressiveness and control over people in Hong Kong is increasingly disturbing now that it has imposed a new national security law on the area, giving authorities power to deal with acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, or collusion with foreign or external forces.  Supposedly an action to return stability to Hong Kong, it is in essence an imposition of stricter authoritarianism.  The reality is that Beijing does not want Hong Kong to be a model for any Chinese city.

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Hong Kong, with its valuable deep harbor, became a British colony in 1841 after the first Opium War and remained that except during World War II, until on July 1, 1997, when at a peaceful ceremony the colony was handed to the People’s Republic of China. Hong Kong became a special administrative region of China.

In 1984, the Sino-British joint declaration signed in Beijing stated that the UK would agree to China exercising sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997. It agreed the social and economic system and legal system would remain basically unchanged, and that it would retain its status as a free port, and international trade and financial center.  The two nations agreed on a policy of “one country, two systems,” this was a concept devised by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.  The People’s Republic of China would remain a socialist system, while Hong Kong and Taiwan would continue under the capitalist system.  Hong Kong was supposed to retain its legislative, executive, and independent judicial powers system and people’s rights for 50 years. China would control foreign affairs as well as interpretation of Hong Kong basic law. Britain accepted the one country formula. believing that Hong Kong would supposedly enjoy a high degree of autonomy for 50 years, making its own laws with its own legal system. But China has been exercising more control over Hong Kong policy and authorities.

It is protests about the basic law and proposed changes in the electoral system that led to street protests, especially with the Umbrella Movement in September-December 2014, which was opposed by police use of tear gas and pepper spray. In summer 2019 large protests occurred with the introduction of a China endorsed legislative proposal that would have allowed extradition to mainland China.

On June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square saw large-scale protests calling for more political freedom.  Thousands of people occupied the space until military, troops, and tanks moved in and fired on the crowd.  Officially the number of killed was given of 200 civilians and some security officials, but more realistic estimates vary up to 10,000. As a memorial, a statue was created by Danish architect Jens Galaschiot in 1997, a 26-foot pillar of human figures in agony and twisted bodies pressed together.  Called the Pillar of Shame, it is inscribed, “the old cannot kill the young forever.”

In subsequent years, an annual candlelight vigil commemorating the incident had been allowed, and students in an annual ceremony demonstrated around the statue, until Hong Kong authorities banned this in 2020, citing restrictions due to COVID-19. On December 22, 2021 this statue at the University of Hong Kong was removed as a result of Chinese pressure.

The relationship of parties is uncertain. Chinese officials do not directly control Hong Kong as they do in the mainland, but they exert influence through those loyal to China who control political affairs. All political changes need approval of the Chinese National People’s Congress as well as by the Hong Kong government.   Charges of terrorism and sedition or “incitement to subversion” are being improperly used by China to limit Hong Kong rights.

On July 1, 2020, Hong Kong authorities introduced a national security law that was devised by Beijing.  It makes any dissent criminal and gives authorities broad power to deal with “acts of secession’ subversion, termism, or collusion with foreign or external forces.” It provides for China to establish a security force in HK, and ability to influence the choice of judges who hear national security cases.  Hong Kong authorities prevented critical candidates from running in the 2020 legislative elections, which were postponed. Police arrested pro-democracy activists.  The educational system has introduced so-called “patriotic” programs.

The increasing controls over Hong Kong are new examples of China’s aggressive policy in projecting its power in the world. New American policies are necessary to deal with those increasing assertions: China’s claims to own the waters in the South China Sea, where it is building new islands on existing reefs, and transforming them into military bases; the ambitious Belt and Road initiative plans to build transport and infrastructure projects from homeland to Rotterdam, Africa, and Latin America. China has the world’s largest navy, 355 ships and submarines, compared with the U.S. 296 warships, the UK’s 69, and Russia’s 295, and it is preparing a new aircraft carrier. On Christmas Eve 2021, China launched three warships in one day. Economically, China accounts for almost 20% of the world’s GDP, and its economy is growing at about a 6% level.  Ironically, though is interfering politically and legally in Hong Kong, it does not appear to interfere in economic transactions, from which Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs benefit. 

Will the West respond by providing safe havens for HK residents in their countries, by offering visas for those who want to become Western citizens, imposing sanctions on China, and suspending extradition treaties?