Hong Kong Is in Danger
Beijing’s new national security law for the territory portends years of unrest—and the end of its status as a financial hub.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s weekly China Brief. The highlights this week: Beijing’s rubber-stamp legislature is expected to pass Hong Kong’s new national security law, a Canadian judge makes a big ruling in the case of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, and British authorities fine the Chinese state broadcaster CGTN.
If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.
Protesters Say Hong Kong Will Burn
Beijing’s announcement of a new national security law in Hong Kong stunned the city’s more than 7 million residents, who see it as a death blow to the “one country, two systems” model—the rights and laws that have protected the territory from Beijing’s despotism since 1997. China’s own rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress, is expected to pass the law on Thursday—not the Hong Kong legislature.
While the details remain unclear, the law will likely lead to widespread arrests on spurious political charges, a crackdown on free speech, and the unleashing of China’s security organs, such as the Ministry of State Security and the People’s Armed Police. At the same time, the Hong Kong legislature is moving to push through a hugely unpopular law that criminalizes the mockery of China’s national anthem, which is routinely booed by crowds in the territory.
What is to come. Coronavirus restrictions and an unprecedented police presence have limited protests in critical areas around government buildings. Even so, the Hong Kong police made over 300 arrests in 24 hours this week. The mood among young Hong Kongers, who largely do not identify as Chinese, is grim: The slogan laam caau—loosely translated as “If we burn, you burn with us”—has become popular. So too have calls for outright independence, which were rare before the authorities’ brutal response to last year’s protests.
The new law means that Hong Kong could be a simmering center of revolt for years. This summer could see violence—mostly at the hands of the police, but some by protesters—on a scale that dwarfs last year’s protests.
The U.S. response. Washington’s reaction to Beijing’s announcement was swift. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced today that Hong Kong could no longer be considered a meaningfully autonomous territory. A wide range of measures could result, including the end of Hong Kong’s special trading status, despite pushback from U.S. businesses there. The first step may be sanctions against individual Chinese officials. As ever, China has threatened countermeasures.
Beyond the U.S. measures, Hong Kong’s status as a financial hub is in danger. For businesses, the main value of the city is that its financial and legal systems are more transparent and fair than the mainland’s, making it an attractive option for both foreign and Chinese firms looking to prove their credibility in the region. The erosion of the rule of law and freedom of speech endangers that. And on the ground, increased security measures and chaotic protests may make the city less attractive for rich expatriates.
What We’re Following
Meng Wanzhou could face extradition. Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer and the daughter of the company’s founder, has been under house arrest in Canada since she was detained on U.S. fraud charges there last year. Today, a Canadian judge ruled that Meng’s actions could be considered a crime in Canada, removing an important barrier to her deportation to the United States to stand trial. Since the United States still has to make its case for extradition, the legal battle continues. Meng will reside in her multimillion-dollar mansion while awaiting the final results.
Meng’s case touches not only on Chinese power—Huawei has ties to the state, like all nominally private big Chinese firms—but also on the belief among China’s super-rich that they should be able to move freely and enjoy the benefits of their wealth in other countries. That’s one reason why Meng’s initial arrest prompted such anger from China, including the ongoing false imprisonment of two Canadian nationals, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. The response this time is likely to be fierce, including boycotts and sanctions on Canadian trade.
State TV fined. The Chinese state broadcaster CGTN, which has made a large international push in the last decade, is facing sanctions and fines from U.K. authorities over its failure to present a balanced picture of Hong Kong on its British network. The U.K.’s broadcasting standards call for particular balance on television news, even for channels like CGTN with a small audience. With Chinese propaganda under the microscope, CGTN—which is also facing visa challenges in the United States—is likely to be a particularly easy target.
Indian border standoff. The coronavirus pandemic and its political fallout are driving a new wave of aggressive policies and actions from Beijing. The latest clash is ongoing along the contentious Indian border, where China has sent thousands of troops into territory that India considers its own. Previous standoffs have been resolved peacefully. A diplomatic solution is also the most likely answer this time, but scuffles between soldiers could still accidentally escalate.
Correct your maps. This nationalist push is also evident in a new Chinese initiative to force companies, both Chinese and foreign, to use “correct” maps—i.e., showing Taiwan and disputed territory in the South China Sea as Chinese territory. Foreign firms are likely to face challenges similar to those posed to airlines over the naming of Taiwan. Even websites and publicity materials published in other countries will face demands to conform to Chinese standards or be charged with national security offenses that could lead to fines. Maps have long been an obsession for China’s government, which uses them to justify spurious territorial claims.
Tech and Business
Growth target ditched. For the first time since it started publicizing the numbers in 1990, China has officially ditched any GDP growth target for this year. That is a big move, signaling just how bad the economic future is—any talk of a V-shaped recovery is gone. Not announcing a target disincentivizes local officials from artificially boosting GDP figures, it signals the seriousness of the crisis to the public and to outsiders, and it avoids the political embarrassment of missing a target.
But Beijing’s de-prioritization of economic growth may mean something else: a system that empowers officials to make radical moves they previously held back on because of economic costs. Hong Kong’s role as a financial hub has often been held up as a limit on what Beijing could do in the city, but in an environment where nationalist credentials and security concerns matter more than economic growth, those considerations can be pushed aside.
Avoiding unemployment? Chinese officials have also focused on the unemployment crisis, especially with a crop of new graduates about to enter the market this summer. China’s official unemployment figure is just 5.9 percent, up two points from before the pandemic. But that number is widely acknowledged to have little relationship to reality: Rural regions, for example, are excluded because the system still counts all residents as employed on their farmland.
While migrant workers are worst-hit by the crisis, the picture for college graduates in the private sector has been getting bleaker in recent years as the number of graduates exceeds the number of available jobs. As a result, the attraction of government jobs has grown. Expect record numbers for the civil service exams this year.
Coronavirus checks, forever. The app-based monitoring systems put in place during the pandemic may become a permanent part of some Chinese cities, with the unhealthy excluded from public spaces or subject to extra monitoring—a category that could include those deemed politically contagious. Disease discrimination has long been a part of Chinese work life, although the government has previously tried to crack down on trends such as the widespread prejudice against hepatitis B carriers.
Systems gamed. YouTube reported it will no longer automatically delete comments that use the term wumao, a derogatory reference to Chinese internet propagandists who were once reported to be paid five mao (approximately seven U.S. cents) per post. The deletions may have resulted from mass reporting of the term, which triggered an automatic response from the YouTube commentary system—a sign of how easily mass numbers can be mobilized to game such systems.
What We’re Reading
“The Gap Between the PLA and HKPF is An Order to Shoot,” by Trey Menefee, Comparativist
As Hong Kong waits for the jackboots, this short piece by resident and commentator Trey Menefee from last year is well worth reading. It dives into the history of colonial policing in Hong Kong and the tools available to the authorities.
That’s it for this week.