China moves on Hong Kong

China and Hong Kong will this week reach a major turning point, with the expected signing of the new National Security Law in Beijing. The law is designed to quell the continuing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, but marks a departure from the “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement Hong Kong has worked under since 1997, which includes a high degree of autonomy, a free press, and an independent judiciary.

The move has drawn a swift rebuke from many foreign governments, and human rights groups, who fear it will bring in a new era of surveillance, censorship, and limits to personal freedoms. Dr Manying Ip spoke to the Asia Media Centre about the latest moves from Beijing, and just how things may play out in Hong Kong.  

Q: China says it needs to impose new laws on Hong Kong, as the old laws have become “demonized” to the extent that the Legislative Council (LegCo) cannot enforce them properly. What’s your view of that argument?

You’re referring to ‘Article 23’ which would enable Hong Kong to pass its own security laws. Successive governments never managed to pass these.  The last attempt in 2003 triggered a demonstration of 500,000 people.

The LegCo couldn’t actually pass any laws related to ‘national security’, even when the Pro-Beijing factions were in the majority. Look at last year when Carrie Lam tried to pass the extradition bill.

The bills could not be passed because of the widespread demonstrations, irrespective of LegCo.

The next LegCo election will be in November 2020 and it is likely that the pan-democrats will pick up many seats, because there is widespread dissatisfaction with the Carrie Lam administration.

Q: What danger does the new law pose to the “One Country, Two Systems” model? China says it makes that system stronger and others say it has killed that concept.

The proposed new law will be essentially a law made by Beijing, and passed by Beijing, to be inserted into the Hong Kong Basic Law (the “mini-constitution”). The situation in Hong Kong will then be “One Country, One System”, a dramatic change and a very unpopular one.

Q: Many western nations, including New Zealand, have criticised China for the new proposed laws. What can the outside world actually do and what obligation does the UK – the former colonial power – have to Hong Kong people ?

Unfortunately for Hong Kong, there is very little that the outside world can do.  Britain could have done more just before the handover in 1997, but there was neither conviction or willpower on the part of Whitehall under the Tony Blair government. Basically, I believe Britain never really cared for Hong Kong people’s welfare that deeply.

Q: The United States has indicated that it may remove Hong Kong’s special trading status – what would the impact of that be, and is Hong Kong in danger of losing its status as a global trading hub?

If the US removes the special trading status – which it could easily do, especially during the current tensions and the trade war with China – Hong Kong would indeed completely lose its valuable status as a global trading hub. Mind you, Hong Kong’s decline in global trade status has been happening for quite a while and Asian cities like Singapore and Shanghai are gaining influence, while Hong Kong has slipped. But losing that special status would be a massive blow for Hong Kong.

Hong Kong was, and is, nothing more than a pawn to the United States. The threat to remove the special status is just the latest in the game with China.

Q: We have already seen some protests in Hong Kong over the latest moves in Beijing. What do you think the longer term strategy of pro-democracy groups will be? 

The nature of the protests has undergone many changes since mid-2019.  The idealistic belief that Hong Kong could defend its residue freedom by mass demonstrations of one or two million people has now largely evaporated.

In the face of a harsh government crackdown, complete with regular deployment of riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets, desperate demonstrators escalated their response to outright militancy, with the destruction of public buildings (including the LegCo), the public transport system, and the occupation of various university campuses.

Pro-democracy groups have suffered from the lack of leadership and strategy. With the arrest, imprisonment, and exile of a number of prominent figures in recent weeks, they have been further weakened.

Legitimate anger and frustration haven’t been harnessed to guide the movement forward, and we have seen a descent into anarchy and wanton destruction, which of course gives the authorities an excuse to crack down.

​Q: Has Beijing underestimated the depth of feeling among the pro-democracy supporters, and will this move backfire by turning more people against Beijing?

Communist governments never aim to be popular and the CCP administration in Beijing is not built on the support of the Hong Kong people. At present, I think Beijing calculated that the move to change the laws should be made before the November LegCo election and while COVID-19 is supposedly preventing ‘mass-gathering’.

Q: Is there a peaceful solution to this situation, and if not do you expect to see Chinese troops on the streets of Hong Kong later this year?

Personally I don’t think Beijing will need to send Chinese troops. They are already garrisoned in Hong Kong anyway. The Hong Kong police force, hardened and angered by months of protests during  2019, will do their job.

Q: Do you see a day when Hong Kong could be fully independent from China?

Hong Kong  has always been a “borrowed place, on borrowed time.”. It was never really independent from China and it never will be. Realpolitik dictates that and geo-political reality dictates that.

In its most glorious days – as the “Pearl of the Orient” – it was a useful money earner for Britain, but who cared for her political rights? Or the people’s welfare? Or freedom of speech etc?

My own ancestral family settled in Hong Kong in 1840, when the British first raised the Union Jack there. It was a complex and chequered history: our ancestor owned an opium shop and dealt with Scottish traders, and pirates who imported the drug through HKG.

My great-grandfather was a close associate with Dr Sun Yatsen, the revolutionary who overthrew the last dynasty and founded the Republic.

I love Hong Kong, and the passing of the new National Security Law in Beijing this week will be a very sobering day.

But I knew it would come.

– Asia Media Centre

Author: Manying Ip
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