Unrest in Hong Kong and the Implications for US-China Relations

Picture courtesy of Rueters Photographer Tyrone Siu

In 1997, the United Kingdom formally handed over the sovereignty of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China under the legal framework of the Sino-British Joint Declaration. As per the agreement, Hong Kong would become a Special Administrative Region of China under a policy of “One Country, Two Systems”, giving it a degree of autonomy and preserving its capitalist system for at least 50 years. These principles were enshrined in the Hong Kong Basic Law, a constitutional document that also upholds a number of human rights. They include, among others, freedom of speech and press and freedom from “arbitrary or unlawful arrest, detention or imprisonment”. Despite the PRC’s agreement to the administrative stipulations, the relationship between the mainland and Hong Kong has been a tenuous one. As China’s power has grown in the 21st Century, Beijing has sought to exert stronger influence on the island as a broader strategy to extend their regional hegemony. However, Hong Kongers, accustomed to their freedom and autonomy, have become frustrated with the mainland authority and tensions are spiking. Recently, riots broke out when police and city health authorities, who many see as complicity with Beijing, attempted to remove street food vendors from a commercial district. This comes at a time when Hong Kong has been shocked by the scandalous and mysterious abduction of book publishers critical of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As China continues to erode the Basic Law of Hong Kong and violate human rights at home, the United States must devise a plan to confront them directly, employ more diplomatic resources in the region and position human rights as a priority in its “Pivot to Asia”.

The Case of the Missing Book Publishers

The situation regarding the book publishers’ arrests can be seen as an analogy to the entire relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong and although the story is still developing, it is important to discuss to understand China’s true intentions.  Beginning in October 2015, five associates of the Causeway Bay Bookstore in Hong Kong suspiciously disappeared. The store was infamous for featuring books on sensitive political topics and quickly became a hotspot for mainland tourists yearning for some taboo political gossip. Even more provocative, in the eyes of Beijing, was the purchase of the bookstore in 2014 by Mighty Current Media Company Ltd., a publishing powerhouse responsible for a vast majority of the salacious books on China’s most powerful political figures. Gui Minhai, one of the three shareholders of Mighty Current and a dual Swedish citizen, was taken from his home in Pattaya, Thailand on October 17, just days after his colleague Lui Bo vanished. The Swedes attempted to intercede through Interpol but did not find any assistance forthcoming from a Thai military junta widely seen as compliant with the demands on Beijing. Over the next few weeks two more men associated with Causeway Bay went missing. On December 30, witnesses saw a group of men push Lee Bo, another Mighty Current shareholder and a dual British citizen, into a minivan and speed off.  There are no immigration records of him having crossed the border into mainland and it should be noted that China does not have an extradition agreement with Hong Kong.

The abductions sparked a public outcry in Hong Kong and around the world. The British Foreign Minister, Philip Hammond, said it would be an “egregious breach of the One country, Two systems policy, Hong Kong’s Basic Law and the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration for someone to be spirited out of Hong Kong in order to face charges in a different jurisdiction”. He especially expressed concern that Lee Bo “was involuntarily removed to the mainland without any due process under Hong Kong law”. The actions were also roundly condemned by United States, Japan and the European Union. The Chief Executive of Hong Kong, CY Leung, held a press conference on January 4, 2016, stating, “It would be unacceptable if mainland law enforcement agents enforce laws in Hong Kong because this violates the Basic Law”. Then came the video confessions.

Chinese state media first published an interview with Gui Minhai on January 17. In it he admitted to travelling to mainland China to answer for an old criminal charge, implored the media not to read too much into his disappearance and stated he did not want help from the Swedish embassy. Gui’s daughter, Angela, told Reuters that the confession appeared “ridiculous and contrived”.  The Hong Kong public did not believe it either. The same day, a video was released of Lee Bo denouncing Gui Minhai. On February 28, the three other associates of Causeway Bay appeared with Gui on a televised interview in which they confessed to illegal book trading and condemned the material’s negative influence on society. The next day, Lee Bo also gave an interview, denying he was kidnapped and renouncing his British citizenship. Much of what Lee stated in both videos have been shown to contradict emails he sent to Angela Gui after her father disappeared, in which he expressed solidarity with his missing colleague. These are certainly not the first “confessions” that Chinese authorities have coerced but it is a landmark event in the modern relationship between the mainland and Hong Kong, an unprecedented and overt disregard for the freedoms included in the Basic Law. The Hong Kong public may have seen the confessions for the political theater that they were, but that was not the point. Beijing had showcased the extent of its power and exposed the limits of Hong Kong autonomy.

Beijing’s Iron Fist, Hong Kong’s Steel Wall

That the Chinese Communist Party would have no qualms violating human rights should come as no surprise. This is the same political party responsible for the disastrous consequences of the Great Leap Forward, the oppression of the Cultural Revolution and the violent crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Today, the CCP is no less prodigious in disregarding human rights as it expands its power. Despite significant advances made in China’s modernization, brutal crackdowns against Uighur and Tibetan separatists, a tight fist around the country’s media and a disdain for personal freedoms have garnered criticism against the authoritarian regime from human rights organizations around the world. Hong Kong, however, was supposed to be different. The “One country, Two systems” policy and the Basic Law were meant to safeguard a people accustomed to Western values and freedoms from a Beijing overreach. Yet, ever since China emerged as a formidable 21st Century power it has shown its willingness to skirt international norms and contractual agreements. Their vision of a Chinese dominated South China Sea includes absolute control over not only Hong Kong but Taiwan as well.

Throughout all this encroachment, however, Hong Kongers have remained resolute in trying to secure the freedoms promised to them. When in 2014, China ruled against allowing open elections in Hong Kong it sparked massive protests around the city.  People railed against the screening process for Chief Executive candidates and the complicity they saw between many figures of authority in Hong Kong and Beijing. Since then, tensions have continued to spike and riots, like the most recent one over the shutdown of street food vendors, have increased. Beijing’s top official in Hong Kong, Zhang Xiaoming, has called those who participated in the riot “radical separatists” who are “inclined to terrorism”.  And the rhetoric is heating up on both sides. A number of Hong Kong student unions with a significant political voice have recently elected presidents who openly support independence and particularly disdain attempts from Beijing to impose propagandized “patriotic education” about Hong Kong’s role in China’s history. The outcry over the book publisher scandal has only fueled the fire even more and it seems like tensions will continue to escalate as each side’s actions provoke the other.  As Michael Ten, a Hong Kong lawmaker, told the Financial Times, “The situation is heading for a bigger showdown. Beijing is convinced that it was too liberal and that this has allowed Hong Kong to be destabilised. But the tighter they squeeze Hong Kong, the more the resistance. The DNA of Hong Kong people is different from mainlanders because of our history and upbringing”.

American Diplomacy in the Pivot to Asia

The United States has a constructive role to play in this showdown and Hong Kong should be an important point of focus in the “Pivot to Asia”. While stability in the region is certainly a priority, the United States must not forsake its stalwart defense for human rights, democracy and freedom. The official stance on Hong Kong from the US State Department is “grounded in the determination to promote Hong Kong’s prosperity, autonomy, and way of life…The U.S. supports Hong Kong’s autonomy under the “One Country, Two Systems” framework by … bolstering educational, academic, and cultural links…”. The responsibility of confronting China will surely fall on the shoulders of the next US administration and human rights, especially in the context of Hong Kong, must be repositioned as a priority in its foreign policy. There must be more vocal and public condemnations of actions like the book publishers’ abductions from US officials. In negotiations, American diplomats must try to persuade their Chinese counterparts that improving human rights and respecting Hong Kong autonomy will increase stability not undermine it. Most importantly, the White House must assume more responsibility in acknowledging the many human rights violations and integrating a strategy to address them in its broader China policy.

The US relationship with China is a strained one and highlighting human rights may be seen as incendiary by some, but this is a matter of principle. America must stand with the people of Hong Kong, people who share our core democratic values. That is why the US should also employ a number of cultural diplomatic resources in Hong Kong at its disposal. Embassy officials can support human rights defenders and democracy activists, the State Department can expand its academic exchange program to include more cross-cultural civic education and American society can speak out in solidarity with Hong Kong protesters. Although the US should not endorse separatism, it is essential to put pressure on China to at least respect the “One country, Two systems” policy.

The stakes are high, tensions are escalating and the United States must be on the right side of history when the time comes. “If something big happens in Hong Kong that is seen as threatening national security, I don’t expect China to wait, they may take the initiative…”, Lau Sio-Kai, a former senior Hong Kong government advisor told Reuters after meeting with Chinese leaders. When that time comes, how will the United States respond? With a resounding defense of democracy and human rights or with a muted submission to the will of Beijing?

Michael Petilli is a freelance writer and editor who focuses on Asian politics, religion, and global development. He has a Bachelor of Science in International Relations and spends his time traveling across the US and around the world making connections and finding solutions.

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