HK’s own leaders have sacrificed its autonomy

03-Jun-2020 Intellasia | The Guardian | 6:02 AM Print This Post

Last week, President Donald Trump announced measures that could rewrite Hong Kong’s relationship with the US. The territory now appears to be on the cusp of having its status in the world change more fundamentally than it did with the handover from Britain in 1997.

Two weeks ago, Beijing announced it would legislate a new national security law and impose it on Hong Kong by decree, bypassing the city’s duly elected legislature in flagrant disregard of the “one country, two systems” arrangement under which Hong Kong has been governed.

In response, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, reported to Congress under the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act that Hong Kong no longer warranted treatment different from the rest of China, stating: “No reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China.”

Finally, last Friday, as a consequence of Pompeo’s certification, Trump announced that he would be directing his administration “to begin the process of eliminating policy exemptions that give Hong Kong different and special treatment”.

As dramatic as the announcement was, Trump did not set out any specific measures: nothing has yet changed in the US-Hong Kong relationship. As such, there is still room for compromise, from both Beijing and Washington. However, the current environment does not suggest that compromise is in the air, and Trump’s statement laid the groundwork and foreshadowed the White House’s probable next steps.

Many observers have wondered if the US might not end up hurting the very people they were supposedly trying to help: the people of Hong Kong.

Some of the potential US measures will not affect ordinary Hong Kong people or businesses. Certain bilateral agreements such as those on extradition and mutual legal assistance between Hong Kong and the US are likely to be the first casualties. This would end formal cooperation between Hong Kong and US authorities in criminal investigation and law enforcement, as well as remove the mechanism enabling the extradition of fugitives between the US and Hong Kong. Bringing Hong Kong within the scope of existing restrictions on exports of dual-use technologies is also a logical step, given Hong Kong’s proximity, geographically and politically, to China. Hong Kong has allegedly been used to evade US sanctions in the past.

Sanctions are also on the cards for those Hong Kong and Beijing officials “directly or indirectly involved in eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy”. This may include travel bans, or even extend to Treasury department sanctions over financial transactions and assets, and would cause pain for chief executive Carrie Lam and her ministers, but this would not affect ordinary Hong Kongers.

However, the real challenge comes with Trump’s threat to revoke Hong Kong’s status as a separate customs and travel territory. This would mean the same tariffs, customs controls, quarantine and inspection standards, and visa rules would apply to Hong Kong as the rest of China, and would have serious adverse consequences for Hong Kong people and businesses. Many in Hong Kong are hoping that the US does not go that far. Pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai argued in the New York Times that “removing those privileges would only make Hong Kong more dependent on China”.

Perhaps the most profound impact of the US action may be that Hong Kong, in the very near term, would become globally regarded to be part-and-parcel of China, and to carry with it China’s reputation, for better or worse. In the past, Hong Kong has enjoyed its own, separate, global reputation. Hong Kong government leaders and trade delegations travelled the world meeting with foreign governments and advocating for Hong Kong in international business circles under the aegis of the “two systems” side of “one country, two systems”. No matter what was happening in the rest of China, Hong Kong stood apart.

Well, Hong Kong will stand apart no longer.

It may be natural to blame the US for this, and some have already argued that the US measures are pushing Hong Kong closer to Beijing. Indeed, the changes in US policy towards Hong Kong are being driven by the bigger issue of a hardening US approach towards China, one of the few truly bipartisan issues remaining in US politics. In this sense, Hong Kong finds itself in the unfortunate position of being a pawn in an emerging cold war between the two superpowers.

However, the sad reality is that Hong Kong government leaders have already been doing this themselves, all too willingly stepping into their role as proxies for Beijing, rather than standing up for the people of the city they are supposed to represent. This could not have been more evident than in the last week as Lam and many of her principal officials lined up to praise the new national security law, reciting from near-identical scripts that could have been drafted by the party central propaganda department.

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This is only the most recent example in a long-developing trend in which Hong Kong’s leaders have gradually ceded its autonomy to Beijing. So, should there be any surprise when the Hong Kong they lead is finally treated accordingly?

The reality is that Hong Kong’s leaders have sacrificed the city’s political neutrality: that special place Hong Kong held as a part of, yet at the same time apart from, the rest of China. The US measures are just the first international recognition of this process, and although they will also hasten its completion, it is hard not to conclude the process would have occurred in any event.

The only hope for Hong Kong is that, with the advent of more enlightened leadership in Hong Kong or Beijing in the future, it might at some point be undone.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/02/hong-kongs-own-leaders-have-sacrificed-autonomy-us-china-carrie-lam

 


Category: Hong Kong

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