How Hong Kong’s democracy fight could help shape Donald Trump’s China policy
Hong Kong’s seven million-plus people are not political refugees and don’t want to be. They are nearly all Chinese but, unlike their Taiwan cousins, do not have a freely elected leader who can phone an incoming US president. America was once committed to protecting these people’s rights and democratic wishes as a matter of policy. What are the chances this might be policy again?
Hong Kong’s current distress offers Donald Trump an opportunity to reflect on his China policy and to showcase what it’s going to mean. The timing is opportune. The bipartisan US-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992 committed America to support Hong Kong’s freedoms and democratic path. That law has expired. But Senators Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton, seeking to revive it, have recently reintroduced the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. If passed, it would oblige the administration to hold China accountable for upholding its promises to Hong Kong.
Will Trump support it? He has pledged a tough line against China in economic areas. And he has accepted the controversial phone call from Taiwan’s president. With Hong Kong, he has a chance to show what, beyond pre-dawn tweeting, he is willing to countenance when it comes to dealing with China.
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive CY Leung, is using every available tool – including the courts – to crack down on dissenters known as localists, a few of whom have the audacity to imagine independence from China.
There is some sympathy for the localists, largely due to the unpopularity of the Leung government. In October, while a half-dozen localists won seats in Legco, others might have done so but were blocked from getting on the ballot. Beijing is now energetically involved in banning separatism from political discourse; CY says it shouldn’t even be discussed in schools.
The localists’ demands touch the Chinese Communist Party’s third rail. No one may dream of independence. Not the Buddhists of Tibet and Inner Mongolia, not the Moslems of Xinjiang, not the Taiwanese who democratically elected President Tsai Ing-wen, and certainly not the residents of Hong Kong, the former British colony.
Hong Kong’s current distress offers Donald Trump an opportunity to reflect on his China policy and to showcase what it’s going to mean
Like most people here, the localists want real democracy, but see little chance while under Beijing’s thumb. Some localists hedge, urging more autonomy somewhere down the road. A few insist on independence.
When the two pro-independence candidates won Legco seats and used their swearing-in ceremony for anti-China political theatre, it offended many Chinese, including pro-democracy parties. The Hong Kong government legally challenged the validity of their oaths and, while the matter was in the judge’s hands, China issued an interpretation of the Basic Law that effectively left the court no discretion.
Armed with the constitutional win, the administration has now targeted four more lawmakers on the same grounds. If successful, pro-government forces would have enough votes to ram through rule changes and legislation that pro-democracy lawmakers oppose.
The crackdown is timely for CY, who faces re-election in March from a 1,200-member body dominated by China’s choices. Though his popularity ratings are abysmal, his uncompromising stance against the Umbrella Movement protests two years ago, and his robust anti-localist campaign now, have endeared him among hardliners.
Meanwhile, China’s President Xi Jinping has launched an anti-corruption war that is a purge by any other name. Aiming at more than moral rectification, it is a broad effort to corral military, political and economic power that was allowed to disperse and develop at lower levels of government during the decentralisation of China’s economy. But what spurred China’s wealth boom also helped develop regional power centres that, unchecked, could threaten the central government.
Xi and his allies are fighting for re-centralisation of national power. They have taken to heart an old revolutionary song: “Without the Communist Party, there is no new China.”
By streamlining the party’s membership (88 million out of 1.3 billion people, the world’s largest political party), eliminating ideological rivals, reorganising the military along fighting lines instead of geographical units, and sidelining anybody in the way, Xi’s faction is condensing control. Keeping the party tight and the power centralised are keys to retaining control of China.
No surprise, then, that any mention of federalism is forbidden. The line is clear: China is a unitary state and all power flows from the centre and no power is retained by any lower entity. The message is hammered home: Any authority you enjoy flows from Beijing’s… and don’t assume it lasts. What the centre giveth, it also taketh away.
Hong Kong is sternly reminded regularly that the Basic Law’s freedoms and other guarantees – as a national law – are gifted by Beijing. Hong Kong people are warned daily that one cannot have liberties, greater than any enjoyed on the mainland, while rejecting China. The threat is explicit: you will not be allowed to live under a second system if you reject the one country.
Written by Francis Moriarty