In 1997, when Britain completed its hand over of Hong Kong to China, it was done under the promise that China would uphold the “One Country, Two System” concept, which essentially established Hong Kong as an autonomous region. However, with the new National Security Bill, this concept seems to have been firmly consigned to the past. The controversial new law is aimed at halting “secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with a foreign country or with external elements” that may endanger China’s “national security”.
Separatism is often cited by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as justification for the suppression of any opposition. This new bill means that the protests that have defined Hong Kong for the last year are now deemed illegal in the eyes of the CCP, and those breaking this new law risk life in prison. Calling for an independent Hong Kong now falls under “secession”, and vandalizing public property, as some protesters did last year, is now seen as an act of terrorism. Protests have almost completely stopped, political groups have disbanded, and social media accounts have been cleaned. The language used in the bill is malleable, meaning that it can easily be applied to a range of situations. Police have cracked down on potential ‘secessionists’ throughout the country, going so far as to arrest suspects aboard airplanes shortly before take-off. The few that still try to protest have turned to more subtle means, including holding blank sheets of white paper in the streets to avoid being accused of having a ‘separatist attitude’. In the last year alone, 29,900 people left Hong Kong, and shortly after the new law was announced in June pro-democracy activists, such as Nathan Law, moved overseas for fear of their lives.
With the uncertainty caused around the COVID-19 outbreak, it appears to be an ideal time to rush through such a significant bill with minimal disruption. A fresh spike in coronavirus cases in Hong Kong in the last few days has also prompted another lockdown across the region, meaning that those who were already risking everything in order to protest the new law are once again being rushed back inside in the name of public health. It was also passed the day before the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China, and therefore can be taken as a signal that the CCP ultimately consider themselves as the ones to determine Hong Kong’s fate, as it belongs to them.
The international response has been strong. The director of Amnesty UK, Kate Allen, labelled it as an “outrageous attack on human rights”. She believes that the law has “laid steadfast foundations for repression, political silence and far-reaching fear”, and that “it is imperative that the international community wakes up to the alarming situation that lies before them – China has shown that it can be swayed if it is put under strong and sustained pressure”.
In the eyes of Britain, the new law breaks the Sino-British declaration of “One Country-Two Systems”. In a statement issued shortly after the new bill was announced, Boris Johnson said that the people of Hong Kong felt that their way of life “is under threat” and that “if China proceeds to justify their fears, then Britain could not in good conscience shrug our shoulders and walk away; instead we will honour our obligations and provide an alternative”. This has been seen with the extension of immigration rights to Hong Kong residents, including making a further 2.5 million people eligible to apply for a British National Overseas Passport.
Other countries, such as the United States and Taiwan, have also offered to extend visas to Hong Kong residents. Australia has suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, and the Prime Minister Scott Morrison has gone so far as to encourage businesses to relocate to Australia. With the upcoming election in the United States, Trump has a political incentive to return to the populist anti-China sentiment that he successfully used in 2016. In making China a political scapegoat, it could gain him some much-needed ground back in the November election, and this new bill provides him a fresh opportunity to attack, as seen by the rejection of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, and the suspension trading with Hong Kong. Boris Johnson’s recent rejection of Huawei’s involvement in the development of the UK’s 5G network is evidently linked to pressure from Trump and the sanctions he imposed on the telecoms company.
Ten years ago, China was being hailed as the future. This was perhaps best highlighted with the Beijing Olympic Games, which was an impressive spectacle showing China at its best, and seemingly cemented its place as a world leader. Even in 2015, former Chancellor George Osbourne was calling it the “golden decade” of Sino-British relations. However, in the current climate, China’s future in the global community is undoubtedly questionable. Not only has its actions in Hong Kong drawn widespread criticism, but the reports of horrendous human rights abuses and mass incarceration of the Uyghur people and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang region have prompted an international backlash against China’s growing influence in the world. Hardening attitudes against China in the past couple of years have been evident, and the international response to Hong Kong’s new security bill, in addition to conspiracy theories around the origin of the coronavirus and the rejection of Huawei, are all evidence of this.
However, with the coronavirus crisis, there has already been a reordering of the global balance of power. COVID-19 has torn the United States apart, and protests about long-term racial injustices have further exacerbated the situation. With America’s weakened position, China has seen an opportunity, as shown with their territory grabs, as well as bringing Hong Kong under its umbrella. It is also seen in their reaction to the international response to the new bill. China has been pedalling a narrative that the West is behind the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and claim that countries such as the USA want to cause unrest in order to hinder China on its rise to world superpower status. They have labelled actions such as Australia’s highlighted above as “gross interference” in its domestic activities, and even issued a statement urging them to “stop meddling … otherwise it will lead to nothing but lifting a rock only to hit its own feet”. An editorial in Chinese state media recently said that the UK must suffer “public and painful” retaliation for its rejection of Huawei, and described it as a “weak link”.
Though Britain has rejected Huawei, in the post-Brexit world Boris will be keen to forge new economic relations with big trading partners, especially China. Therefore, it is unknown how far Britain will really go in attempting to curtail Chinese influence. While in the past China was swayed “under strong and sustained pressure” from the international community, it is uncertain whether past methods will have the same effect as the West attempts to recover from the domestic upheaval caused by COVID-19 and underlying racial injustices.
By Georgia Angela
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