The new National Security Law over Hong Kong was a predictable, and relatively tame, response to a year of protests
On January 1st of 1997, Hong Kong was a Dependent Territory of the United Kingdom. Seven months later, it was a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. The political handover from the UK to China was a long time coming, having been agreed to in 1898. Negotiations for the handover began in the early 1980s and the final agreement, known as the Sino-British Joint Declaration, stipulated that Hong Kong would remain governmentally unchanged for a period of 50 years – that Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms and capitalist economy would remain untouched by the PRC until 2047.
At the end of June, the National People’s Congress of China passed the Law on the Preservation of National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, upending the city’s Basic Law, which guarantees things like property and free speech rights. “A free Hong Kong was one of the world’s most stable, prosperous and dynamic cities,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in Washington on July 1st. “Now it will be just another communist-run city.” Pompeo was referring to the National Security Law and he is not alone in thinking that Hong Kong’s Basic Law, and thus her basic freedoms, is functionally over.
However, this changes nothing. Hong Kong was always going to end up under Beijing’s direct control. The new law is hastening that but the world should perhaps consider that China has treated Hong Kong relatively gently. It could have been much worse.
Make China Whole
The People’s Republic of China has, from the very beginning, had a stated goal of regaining all the territory she lost to foreign powers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Just twelve days after Mao Zedong officially declared the People’s Republic in October, 1949, after the Chinese Communist Party’s victory in the Civil War, the PRC annexed the Xinjiang region, dissolving the Second East Turkestan Republic. A year later they invaded neighboring Tibet, officially claiming it the following year. And every decade since has seen China gain thousands of square kilometers of new territory by war, negotiation, or (as was the case in Hong Kong and Macau) the expiration of treaties or leases.
Today China is involved in no shortage of territorial disagreements with nearly a dozen neighboring countries. They are literally building islands in the South China Sea to expand their territory and have been getting increasingly assertive in their maritime actions. The PRC claims the island of Taiwan, governed by the competing and sovereign Republic of China, that itself claims the entirety of mainland China (resulting in the catastrophically silly “One China Policy”).
Then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher broached the potential of a renewal of the British lease on Hong Kong during a 1982 meeting with then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. According to Lu Ping, the lead Chinese negotiator for Hong Kong prior to the 1997 handover, Deng’s refusal was so adamantly against the idea that he threatened a full military takeover should Hong Kongers get unruly following the handover announcement.
“I could walk in and take the whole lot this afternoon.” Deng said to Thatcher, who replied, “But the eyes of the world would now know what China is like.”
The resulting bargain is part of what has produced the unrest in Hong Kong today as well as Beijing’s response to it. The “One China-Two Systems” policy would begin on July 1st, 1997, when the Chinese flag was raised over Hong Kong, and end fifty years later, in 2047. In that time, Hong Kong would remain an open port, with separate financial systems, and keep its legislative system, including all the attendant rights and freedoms as well as universal suffrage. Beijing would control all foreign policy for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the privilege of interpreting it’s Basic Law – which played a big part in many of the protests Hong Kong has seen over the years.
China was never going to allow an independent Hong Kong. The mere suggestion that China – a country unafraid of armed conflict with India, with the soon-to-be world’s largest economy, a million-man army, and a very large nationalist population caught in an omnipresent web of propaganda – would be unwilling to use force to quash secessionist impulses in Hong Kong is too silly to entertain. That Beijing has been reticent to fully deploy that force has apparently lulled some observers into thinking the National Security Law was unexpected.
Beijing’s soft touch
That the CCP has been reluctant to utilize their law enforcement capabilities should be obvious. And frankly, they deserve credit in many ways for their restraint over the past straight year of protests. Any objective observer should admit that Beijing has mostly kept the kids gloves on in Hong Kong and that very few countries, especially the USA, have much room to criticize the police response in Hong Kong.
Of course, China’s leadership knows the whole world was, and probably still is, expecting a Tiananmen redux. No serious people suggest Beijing’s patience was motivated by concern for the protesters. Last year was the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square event, after all. However the fact remains that, whatever Beijing’s motivations, no informed person should be able to seriously say that China’s reaction has been defined by violence.
Nobody should suggest that the Hong Kong police are blameless or that China is innocent. There are many, many incidents of police brutality in Hong Kong that need addressing, possibly paid but definitely organized gangs attacked protesters, and Beijing has long used illegal-by-their-own-laws surveillance techniques on Hong Kong democracy advocates. The People’s Republic is censorious, opaque, oppressive, and Hong Kongers who like their way of life or perhaps just want to speak their minds are justifiably afraid of the PRC taking full control.
There is much to criticize in how China has treated and is treating Hong Kong. The National Security Law provides broad, dangerous powers to Hong Kong police and, Secretary Pompeo was right, has given the CCP license to treat Hong Kong as just another city in China. The law officially established a new law enforcement agency not answerable either to Hong Kong’s judiciary or its legislature and capable of enforcing laws so broadly written that they could technically be applicable against anyone in the world. One Country, Two Systems really is functionally dead. 2047 is here. And this was still almost the best-case scenario for the protesters.
Beijing was amazingly patient with the Hong Kong protesters. After watching the Black Lives Matters protests around the United States, can anyone not laugh at the idea the US government would have behaved any differently from the Chinese? Is it believable that a major American city could be clogged with tens of thousands of protesters for months on end and the streets not be patrolled by the National Guard at this point? After more than a year of protests, only two people have died in the Hong Kong protests, neither of them at the hands of police. Imagining the scenario playing out similarly in the States is, to be blunt, absurd fantasy completely divorced from the facts.
Hong Kong was never democratic
So while the protests and riots in Hong Kong have seen plenty of coverage by the international press they have still received very little good coverage. Just as the non-Chinese press over-dramatized the police reaction in Hong Kong, they underplayed the extent of the unrest. Whatever the origins or merits of the protests in Hong Kong, it should be exceedingly apparent that they did, on at least a few occasions, descend into violent rioting. There were instances of unprovoked attacks by protesters on random mainland Chinese, including a man set on fire, and they were literally creating a molotov-cocktail factory at the university. However much events such as these were the outliers – and they were, millions of people were protesting in the streets, the scant hundreds of agitators are by no means representative of the overwhelmingly peaceful movement – rest assured that those stories crafted the narrative delivered by Chinese state media.
These were riots. That is the only way they were described in Chinese state media, on the Chinese internet, and by China’s western apologists online on the real internet. The CCP is very adept at staying on message and permeating Chinese society with that message – online, in schools, on TV, and on billboards, posters, and the like all over the real world. Mainland Chinese may not have cared about Hong Kong independence but they are fairly uniform in supporting law and order. State media replayed images of protesters with catapults, firebombs, and bows and arrows to very great effect.
This is on top of the fact that the protesters seemed to be asking for something they never had. Hong Kong was never democratic, indeed the fact that one of the Hong Kong protesters’ five demands is universal suffrage demonstrates the extant limits of democratic freedoms there.
There is also a feeling in China, not undeserved, that the only reason Hong Kong had even the semblance of democracy and western freedoms was because the British wanted Hong Kong to disrupt Chinese society, not be a part of it. Hong Kong saw limited democratic reforms only a few years before the handover and that speaks volumes for many Chinese: Hong Kong wasn’t ready for democracy under British rule but somehow is supposed to be under the CCP. To many mainland Chinese, the protesters are demanding something they never had and the west is hypocritically rewriting history to accommodate them.
Another City in China
The protesters’ five demands were not themselves unreasonable: Refusing to be subjected to the (to be polite) opaque justice system of the PRC probably wouldn’t be a difficult choice; Demanding the resignation of an adversarial city leader isn’t unusual; Calls for the release of arrested protesters aren’t either; Mass protests for official inquiries into police brutality have been happening all over the world these last two months; And universal suffrage is seen as a bedrock of legitimate government in the West. In many ways these types of demands constitute the bare minimum of what most people around the world would consider liberal democracy.
But the demands were unrealistic nonetheless.
China began chipping away at One Country, Two Systems almost immediately but Hong Kong was never in a position to do anything about it. Universal democracy was never on the table. The extradition bill was withdrawn but the National Security Law makes that victory short-live at best, Pyrrhic at worst. China has never allowed an independent inquiry into any of their agencies, let alone a law enforcement one. Hong Kong is part of China. And this has been recognized by every country on Earth since 1997.
From the very beginning of the protests, Chinese state media, like the Global Times, called the participants little else but terrorists and rioters. Unfortunately, as the protests went on, the slogans and posters and participants at the protests became visibly more and more hostile to China. Protesters carried the Chinese flag with swastikas, waved American flags, and attacked mainland Chinese reporters. While the Hong Kong protest movement didn’t start out secessionist, despite the repeated slanders of it as such in the Chinese press, it did end up that way.
Which was never going to happen. Even if a majority of Hong Kongers didn’t reject independence, there is no situation currently imaginable in which Beijing would have allowed that. A crackdown from Beijing was guaranteed. The only question was what form would it take. China’s leaders had absolutely no worries about the Chinese mainlanders opposing a tighter rein on Hong Kong – the CCP could respond just about however it wanted in Hong Kong with no resistance at home. Considering the not-undeserved reputation America’s police have for violence, China’s response was tame. And given what happened in Tiananmen in 1989 and Xinjiang right now, this may have been as bloodless as could be hoped for.
Thomas Brown is a history teacher and freelance writer. He is the senior writer and manager of The Swamp and is featured in Grunge, Quillette, Spiked, The Bipartisan Press, Human Events, among others. Follow him at his Medium page and argue with him on Twitter.
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