Hong Kong’s future now lies with China

The past year and a half has transformed Hong Kong. Following prolonged, intense and often violent protest in 2019, COVID-19 drove activists off the streets in early 2020. This year’s passage of the National Security Law (NSL) by China’s National People’s Congress marked a new political phase. Opposition figures were put on the back foot and the central authorities in Beijing became more engaged in the city’s politics.

A year that began with a major protest march and the burning of HSBC Bank’s lion statues ended with opposition politicians fleeing into exile or facing prison sentences. What exactly has changed in Hong Kong and what are the implications? Two structural shifts stand out.

First, the balance of power within and over Hong Kong. The political momentum gathered by the protest movement weakened the city’s political institutions and from late 2019 Beijing began to fill this vacuum. It supported more restrictive policing of protests, appointed new officials to implement Hong Kong policy and widened its influence on the shaping of the policy environment within which the Hong Kong government operates.

Key to this strategy was the NSL. The boundaries of the crimes it outlaws — secession, subversion, terrorism and collaboration with foreign forces to undermine national security — will only become clear as more cases work their way through the judicial system. But claims that the law criminalises dissent look too simplistic.

Still, before the NSL was enacted it was already clear that Hong Kong’s government would be more assertive in using existing legislation to bring charges against opposition politicians. One consequence is the December imprisonment of political activist Joshua Wong and others on charges — to which they pleaded guilty — of organising an illegal siege of police headquarters in 2019.

Authorities pushed ahead with disqualifications of legislators from the Legislative Council (LegCo) who had been judged not to meet the requirements of conducting politics within the scope of Hong Kong’s Basic Law. The decision by the remaining 15 opposition legislators to resign in sympathy leaves only establishment camp figures to debate legislation.

This offers some space for the government to push forward its agenda in a way not possible since the current dysfunctional LegCo began its term in 2016. But much of the population remains critical of both the Hong Kong and central governments. Elections next autumn — postponed because of the pandemic — will likely show that Hong Kong’s politics remain polarised. Still, the balance of power has shifted in Beijing’s favour.

The second major change is in Hong Kong’s external relationships. Since the announcement of the NSL, Western governments have shifted their positions from concern about developments to strong opposition to the new legislation and to Beijing’s approach to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s separate trading status is no longer recognised by the United States and there are some calls for the United Kingdom to follow suit. A number of Western governments have withdrawn from Hong Kong extradition agreements and the United Kingdom announced a ‘pathway to citizenship’ for up to three million holders of British National (Overseas) (BNO) passports. This policy could transform some UK cities as much as it changes Hong Kong.

For all the insistence that the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration remains valid, a number of these measures (including the BNO scheme) are inconsistent with what was agreed. Some lobbying  in the United Kingdom for foreign non-permanent judges to stand down from Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal targets another key feature of the handover settlement. Beijing has long said that the Joint Declaration had already done its job and now it looks like it is losing relevance on both sides.

How will all of this play out? Hong Kong’s political contestation will remain fierce through 2021. All the protagonists strongly believe they have right on their side, with both the Joint Declaration and China’s constitution held aloft to prove debating points. Beijing seems unmoved in the face of international and local pressure. It has geography, history and sovereignty on its side, plus Hong Kong’s economic reliance on mainland China. China’s leaders are willing to stay the course to shape Hong Kong according to their understanding of ‘one country, two systems’.

Political pressure in London is strong, boosted by the Hong Kong activists who chose to go into self-imposed exile. But there are limits to what the UK government can do. For the United States, the implications will depend on the incoming Biden administration’s wider approach to China. The list of issues is long and Washington has limited leverage in engineering fundamental change in Hong Kong’s trajectory.

Hong Kong would still benefit from deepening cooperation with the West. Yet that looks unlikely now as political and ideological issues in dealing with China take precedence in the West. Hong Kong’s future lies more than ever before with China. For some overseas observers, that is bad news. But Hong Kong’s hinterland continues to grow more dynamic economically, and more diverse and vibrant socially. While Hong Kong may have changed dramatically, that does not spell the end of this unique corner of China.

This article was written by Tim Summers and has been republished by East Asia Forum 31 December 2020.

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