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Why China’s Move to Rein In Hong Kong is Just the Start

2020-05-24 12:13:37
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China’s move to strip away another layer of Hong Kong’s autonomy was not a rash impulse. It was a deliberate act, months in the making. It took into account the risks of international umbrage and reached the reasonable assumption that there would not be a significant geopolitical price to pay.

All are longstanding tensions, but the decision to impose new national security laws on Hong Kong, bypassing the semiautonomous territory’s own legislative process, shows what can happen with an unbridled China, no longer restrained by the fear of international rebuke.

“There was this idea before about China being cautious and trying to cultivate its soft power around the world,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University and the author of “China Tomorrow: Democracy or Dictatorship?” “Those times are gone with Xi Jinping.”

“The United States, in fact, is pouring oil on the fire, barrel by barrel,” Tian Feilong, a professor of law at Beihang University in Beijing, said in a telephone interview. “The central government is therefore actually just safeguarding its own most basic national security interests.”

China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, said on Sunday that the two countries could still work together to promote global peace and stability, but he denounced those in the United States who seek American hegemony.

“It’s time for the United States to give up its wishful thinking of changing China,” Mr. Wang said, accusing American officials of having a Cold War mentality.

While Mr. Xi is using legislation rather than special forces, it is nonetheless a brash move by an autocratic leader willing to risk international condemnation to resist what he views as foreign encroachment on his country’s security.

“The Communist Party doesn’t care anymore about the reactions, because it’s about survival, the stability of the one-party system, avoiding the fate of the Soviet Union,” Mr. Cabestan said. “Hong Kong is being perceived more and more as a base of surveillance, as a factor in the destabilization of the Chinese state.”

These challenges, though, come at a time when its major rivals, the United States above all, are in disarray, giving Mr. Xi more room to maneuver.

Britain, which is a signatory to the 1984 treaty that promised Hong Kong — its former colony — basic freedoms until 2047, issued a statement with Australia and Canada saying that they were “deeply concerned.” Senior Trump administration officials also denounced Mr. Xi’s gambit, warning that they could reconsider the territory’s special status or impose other sanctions. President Trump, whose few comments about Hong Kong have been inconsistent, said little.

Victoria Hui, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame and author of a book on the 2014 Hong Kong protests known as the Umbrella Movement, said the international community had often spoke out against China’s steady accretion of power over the territory but had exacted no real punishment.

“The international pushback has been so weak,” Ms. Hui said. “Beijing is daring foreign governments to continue to issue words but take no actions.”

China’s tactics under Mr. Xi today contrast those of his immediate predecessors, who prioritized China’s reforms and opening over confrontation with its neighbors or the broader world. “Hide our strength, bide our time” was Deng Xiaoping’s adage a generation ago.

When Taiwan was moving to hold its first presidential elections in 1996, China conducted intimidating missile tests in the Taiwan Strait. It was forced to back down when President Bill Clinton ordered American aircraft carriers to the waters in a show of military support for the island’s defense.

For Beijing’s leaders, China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong is as emotionally charged.

Under the Basic Law, the mini-constitution that governs the territory, Hong Kong is obliged to adopt rules “to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition and subversion” against the Chinese government. When the city’s legislature tried to do so in 2003, Beijing retreated in the face of huge street protests.

“China was in a very different place globally,” said Rana Mitter, the director of the University of Oxford China Center. “China’s economy was growing in 2003, but it wasn’t the second biggest economy in the world and quite the economic behemoth it is today.”

There is also a more subtle difference that the pandemic has accentuated. Beijing spent years deflecting criticism of its system by saying that China was not yet ready for more democratic freedoms, effectively leaving open the possibility for greater liberalization of the political system, as many inside and outside the country hoped.

It has also emboldened China in ways that create the possibility of armed conflict.

On the remote border with India, Chinese forces have twice in the last month clashed with Indian troops, prompting both sides to send in re-enforcements. India has accused China of blocking patrols on its side on the Line of Control, the unofficial border.

China has also stepped of its efforts to dominate the South China Sea despite the unresolved territorial claims of countries like Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

In April, it created two new administrative districts to govern the islands it controls in the Paracel and Spratly chains. China’s Navy also said that it had succeeded it growing cabbage and other vegetables in the sand of Woody Island, helping to feed the growing number of troops stationed there.

“Chinese aggression is not always just rhetorical,” Alice G. Wells, an assistant U.S. Secretary of State, said in a telephone briefing in Washington last week.

“So whether it’s in the South China Sea or whether it’s along the border with India,” she said, “we continue to see provocations and disturbing behavior by China that raises questions about how China seeks to use its growing power.”

Claire Fu contributed research.

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