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China's strategic patience on Hong Kong

Marching anti-government protesters are seen through a window with peeled off posters in Hong Kong. File picture: Vincent Yu/AP

Marching anti-government protesters are seen through a window with peeled off posters in Hong Kong. File picture: Vincent Yu/AP

Published Dec 6, 2019


Violent protests have continued for over six months in Hong Kong, with China exercising notable restraint and strategic patience in dealing with developments on the ground. While the Hong Kong police have been accused of misconduct and inaction against triad members, protesters have caused mayhem by smashing facilities, barricading themselves in the legislature and on university campuses, blocking traffic, assaulting civilians, and throwing petrol bombs at police. 

Had protesters engaged in such tactics in other countries over a prolonged period of time, there would likely have been a far more robust response from security forces. Even in France, the yellow vest protest movement were dealt with harshly and were not allowed to foment protracted chaos.

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The protests in Hong Kong were initially against a bill introduced by the Hong Kong government that if enacted would empower local authorities to detain and extradite wanted fugitives to the Chinese mainland. This led to concerns that the bill would subject Hong Kong residents to the legal jurisdiction of mainland China, and would undermine the region’s autonomy and civil liberties. The bill was ultimately withdrawn on October 23rd.

China is aware that its detractors are pushing it to intervene militarily in Hong Kong, and may be hoping to provoke a situation where tanks roll in and a massacre ensues. While the protest movement have done everything to make Hong Kong ungovernable, China has held off from intervening militarily, leaving it to the Hong Kong police force to maintain order and stability. 

But China’s patience is wearing thin, particularly given what it perceives to be direct US interference in its internal affairs following the passing into law last week of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. After the US House of Representatives passed the bill by 417-1 votes, President Donald Trump had appeared on Fox News saying he may veto the bill as its passage could impact on US-China Trade talks. Trump was also quick to say that while the US had to stand with Hong Kong, he would also stand with President Xi Jinping as “he is a friend of mine.” 

A week later, however, Trump had signed the Bill into law, signaling that he may want to use Hong Kong as leverage in the US-China trade talks. 

Trump needs to get China back to the negotiating table and cut a trade deal before the US elections next year, as the trade war is negatively affecting states which tend to vote Republican - particularly the swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The risk of the US falling into recession has been put at 40%, and it is the Republican states that have the weakest economic outlook. Trump was concerned enough about getting a trade deal in October that he had promised President Xi that he would remain silent on the democracy protests while trade talks continued, but he has since reneged on that promise. 

The Act Trump signed into law calls for an annual review of Hong Kong’s autonomy, the identification and imposition of sanctions (asset freezes and visa bans) against those involved in perpetrating human rights abuses, or the rendition of activists to the mainland for detention or trial. The Act calls for the revision of the US extradition treaty with Hong Kong, as well as the US travel advisory. Under the Act, US visas will not be denied to those arrested or detained for having been involved in the demonstrations, and Hong Kong will be excluded from any US trade sanctions that the US may impose on the mainland. The US also passed a bill banning the export of crowd control munitions and tear gas to Hong Kong.

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China has taken the view that the US is trying to sabotage the one country two systems principle, and is determined to undermine the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong. China has therefore threatened to take firm countermeasures for such interference, given its stated right to safeguard its sovereignty and national security. Viewing the Act and potential sanctions as a serious provocation against China, the Chinese negotiators will no doubt play hardball in trade negotiations, and it is worth considering that China is holding US$1 trillion worth of US treasury bonds, and has the potential to collapse the US economy, although it is not in China’s interest to do so. 

The US has flouted international norms and standards once again by gearing up to impose unilateral US sanctions on another country rather than addressing its concerns multilaterally at the UN. It is once again engaging in double standards as many of the issues it is accusing China of - such as human rights abuses and rendition - are violations that the US is engaged in on a wide scale. While Trump has heaped praise on a number of authoritarian leaders around the world who are notorious human rights violators, it has singled out China for condemnation due to political expediency.

As for China, it probably believes it can afford to exercise strategic patience on Hong Kong as the territory no longer holds the economic strategic importance that it once did. Hong Kong’s economy relative to China’s GDP has fallen from a peak of 27 percent in 1993 to less than 3 percent in 2017.  The city of Shenzhen with its explosive growth and technological innovation has far overtaken Hong Kong in economic importance. 

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* Ebrahim is Independent Media's Group Foreign Editor.

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