China won’t care what we think or do about Hong Kong

One can look at the future of the seven million people of Hong Kong only with the deepest foreboding.

The advent of the new national security law and early evidence of the Chinese Communist Party’s immediate show of determination to use it to quell any significant dissent suggests that the notion of One Country Two Systems is about to become a fiction, and that Hong Kong’s place as an essentially free community subject to accountable rule of law is on the way out.

One can expect first an outflow of capital, and soon of people. Hong Kong is not only a port of entry into China and the Chinese economy, but it is also a major financial centre in its own right — a once safe place for currency transactions, and international investment having nothing much to do with China itself. Its businessmen and women have long been prudently diversifying from property and investments based in Hong Kong or China, and now hold substantial property in Britain, Australia, Canada and the United States, as well as in Europe and South East Asia. The capacity of Hong Kong to attract capital and investment has turned on local and international confidence in its court system and in an anti-corruption system of a calibre that ought to humiliate the Commonwealth of Australia.

About 40 per cent of the population, all at least over the age of 23, have limited rights of travel and residence in Britain, in terms negotiated before the handover. Others are also citizens of Canada, Australia, the United States and New Zealand, or in some cases, of South East Asian and Pacific countries, having set up such potential boltholes over the past three decades in case things went bad in Hong Kong, but, while China abided by its promises and they retained faith in the future, being content to headquarter themselves in Hong Kong. Many such people, among the most wealthy and entrepreneurial part of the population, bought land and businesses overseas so that they could, if needs be, abandon ship and write off their Chinese property.

One can take it that the Chinese government is fully aware of the risks it is taking, whether in terms of local and international confidence in the institutions of Hong Kong or with a population which has become steadily more fractious at central government attempts to interfere with the way of life, and which has demonstrated willingness to take to the streets. No doubt it does not intend a vast program of mass arrests, instead seeking to arrest and try some of the most prominent activists, arguing that demands for greater self-government, less interference from Beijing and the imposition of laws, first over extradition to China, and now over sedition, threats to national security and terrorism (all as defined, vaguely, by Beijing) without consultation with, or the consent of, either the population or its half-elected legislated assembly.

The Economist has quoted a senior adviser in Hong Kong, Lau Siu-Kai as saying that the aim of the law is “to kill a few chickens to frighten the monkeys” — in somewhat the same manner as the party likes to crush dissent on the mainland. This is consistent with the official line that the problems of the past 18 months have been the work of a few troublemakers. Or pawns, witting or unwitting of foreigners trying to stir up trouble. One of the crimes one can commit involves “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security” — the endangerment, as with Australia’s not much less draconian or accountable national security laws, being not much more than supporting something of which its department of home affairs disapproved.

 But both the evidence of those troubles (including the efforts by thousands in almost continual demonstrations against the extradition laws to disguise themselves against photographic identification) and of those preaching continuing defiance suggests that many will continue to resist, and to risk consequences by doing so. It may be, indeed, that the protestors crossed this psychological Rubicon towards the end of last year as Chinese troops massed on the border and threats of intervention became more open. The protesters realised that submission to a new type of outside rule, or meek retreat after threats of force could only accentuate their danger once Beijing had enforced its will.

Only the truly credulous (the White House and about 10 million US Republicans) could imagine that  Beijing planned and organised the Covid-19 pandemic with a view to distracting the whole world, including perhaps Hong Kong itself, from its sinister intentions. But there seems little doubt that China has used the opportunity of the screen of the pandemic as it has toughened up its foreign policy talk, and become more and more dismissive and contemptuous of western disapproval of Chinese activities in the South China Sea, of its assimilationist policies towards the Uighurs, or talk of a suddenly aggressive China with a plan to shake up the region.

Those in Australia who have seemed to be wanting to provoke a war with China, or at the least seemingly hell-bent on warning of imminent hostilities, will no doubt shake their heads wisely at the new Chinese activity in Hong Kong to say, “I told you so”. Yet while the fear and the threat of a major Chinese intervention in Hong Kong has been about for a while, it has not been a major aspect of their warnings and alarums. This is perhaps because the ultra-hawks are quite uncertain about how we could — indeed how we should — respond if this occurs.  It also adds to a more general claim that China is never to be trusted, regardless of what it says about the purity of its intentions.

Our prime minister, Scott Morrison, has indicated, in vague terms, that Australia would be prepared to take refugees from Hong Kong. I expect that he means to evacuate people, Chinese or western, with some right to enter Australia, or have another country to which they have a right of entry. Boris Johnson has said somewhat more, if again without great specificity, and other countries have signalled their willingness to give shelter to the cleverest and the richest of those seeking boltholes.

But it is by no means clear how a mass exit from Hong Kong could occur. Particularly when one bears in mind that China does not usually recognise foreign passports, or the identity documents of people with rights as British nationals overseas, least of all when they are resident in Hong Kong, part of China itself. It regards them as ordinary Chinese citizens with no particular rights. Traditionally people from Hong Kong have been allowed to fly or sail abroad without government permission, but one might expect that the authoritarian state would soon assert itself if there were any sort of mass exodus, or signs of public panic, or orchestrated international disapproval of how Chinese “brutality and interference” was trampling on the human rights of the people of Hong Kong.

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John Waterford AM, better known as Jack Waterford, is an Australian journalist and commentator.

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