China Power | Politics | East Asia

Where Does Hong Kong’s Protest Movement Stand Amid Coronavirus Fears?

The next key step will hinge on the U.S. as it considers its first annual certification on Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Where Does Hong Kong’s Protest Movement Stand Amid Coronavirus Fears?
Credit: Flickr/ Studio Incendo

The anti-extradition movement in Hong Kong, also called the Water Revolution, has entered an unexpected de-escalation since January due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The city was originally stuck at an impasse, when the Chinese and Hong Kong governments failed to put down the protests using police-state suppression on the one hand while the protesters also struggled to press for real progress on universal suffrage on the other hand. But Hong Kong’s streets have now resumed their calm in an extraordinary way. Since January, street protests have been almost completely halted to avoid the concentration of large crowds under the coronavirus crisis.

The Local Front: The Movement Continues

But street protests are just one part of the anti-extradition movement, and the anti-extradition movement itself is just the latest chapter, but not the last chapter, of the wider autonomist movement of the 7.52 million-strong “stateless nation” of Hong Kongers. After all, the “five demands” of Hong Kongers ultimately boiled down to whether, and when, a truly autonomist government and legislature could be established by way of universal suffrage.

While street protests have de-escalated in recent weeks, the momentum of the movement remains strong and has been developed into cross-class, cross-sector civil society organizing, namely “new labor unionism” led by professionals-workers and a “yellow economic circle” championed by entrepreneurs. Such mobilizations are clearly not based upon narrow class interests and cannot be interpreted through the traditional perspective of left-right class politics, because they are built upon an all-encompassing “Hong Konger identity.” In short, street protests have entered a “little break” now, but the movement has carried on in new forms.

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It will be interesting to observe whether such new forms of civil society organizing help contribute to new waves of street protests fighting for universal suffrage around the forthcoming anniversaries of the June 9 protest, June 12 resistance, and July 1 handover – especially as the coronavirus crisis, hopefully, will have plateaued or petered out by summer.

International Front: The “US Factor” Will Matter

As a result of the emerging “U.S.-China New Cold War,” Hong Kong’s autonomy has already evolved into three-way interaction between Hong Kongers, China, and the West. Therefore, momentum for the fight for universal suffrage in Hong Kong hinges not only on local mobilizations, but also on whether and to what extent there is strong support from the West.

In this regard, the single largest factor that will matter in the upcoming months will be the United States’ first annual certification on Hong Kong’s autonomy as required by the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 (HKHRDA). Unlike the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992 (USHKPA), which only required reporting “on conditions in Hong Kong of interest to the United States,” the HKHRDA mandates the U.S. secretary of state to explicitly issue an annual certification of Hong Kong’s autonomy to Congress for the purpose of indicating “whether Hong Kong continues warrant treatment under United States law in the same manner as United States laws were applied to Hong Kong before July 1, 1997.” And in issuing the annual certification, the U.S. secretary of state is mandated by the Act to certify the state of Hong Kong’s autonomy according to a rather comprehensive set of indicators, including the decision-making of the Hong Kong government relating to freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of the press and universal suffrage, etc.

It is expected that the U.S. government is going to issue its first annual certification in March or April this year. Conceptually, there are two broad options for the United States, and the choice between them will certainly have a significant impact on the direction and momentum of the autonomist movements in Hong Kong.

First, Washington can provide a straightforward certification on Hong Kong’s autonomy, without making any formal condition on future certifications.

This approach implies that Washington is basically doing “business as usual,” as in the previous rounds of annual reporting under the USHKPA, despite the enactment of the HKHRDA. The rationale behind this option is that Hong Kong should not become a variable that complicates Sino-U.S. relations, including but not limiting to the upcoming second phase of the trade negotiations.

But the downside of this option is obvious. By adopting this option Washington will effectively abandon, on its own accord, the potential advantage of the HKHRDA as a powerful policy tool to re-exert its influence and presence in Hong Kong. This option will convey a message to Beijing that the HKHRDA is nothing more than “another toothless tiger” like the USHKPA and it can continue to tighten its grip over Hong Kong’s autonomy without any fear of losing U.S. certification (the very foundation of Hong Kong’s status as an international financial center, which China heavily depends on).

Second, Washington can issue a “conditional certification” on Hong Kong’s autonomy, with formal and concrete conditions for future certifications being specified in the first certification.

This approach would mean that Washington is going to take a proactive, game-changing role in fostering Hong Kong’s autonomy and empower its agenda by leveraging the potential impacts of the annual certification process under the HKHRDA. The rationale of this option is that China depends very much on Hong Kong’s autonomy (and its international financial center status therein) to sustain its economic and strategic survival and such dependence is more important than ever amid China’s current economic debt crisis. In other words, Washington can make use of its advantage (i.e. China’s reliance on U.S. certification of Hong Kong’s autonomy) to bargain for greater concessions from Beijing in both Sino-U.S. relations and Hong Kong’s autonomy.

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For example, Washington could, in its upcoming annual certification, press for universal suffrage in Hong Kong by conditioning that the “U.S. long-term certification of Hong Kong’s autonomy will be hinged upon an earlier, full democratization of its government and legislature” (as championed by pro-democracy professional groups in the territory), thus setting universal suffrage as the top agenda for the upcoming waves of local street protests and pressuring the Chinese and Hong Kong governments to re-launch constitutional reforms; Washington can also specify a condition that Hong Kong government should more strictly implement export controls and law enforcement cooperation, making it more difficult for Beijing to circumvent U.S. trade restrictions through Hong Kong. In short, this option will allow Washington to strengthen its position in the geopolitical competition with China and foster Hong Kong’s autonomy at the same time.

But the potential risk of this option hinges on whether Washington has the strategic determination and consistency to push ahead. This option will certainly set up Hong Kong as a battlefield for a U.S.-China showdown. Unless Washington has the strategic determination to consolidate Hong Kong’s autonomy by consistently leveraging its upper hand through the HKHRDA, adopting this option may only inject political instability into the territory.

After all, the choice of the two options depends very much on how the United States perceives the role of Hong Kong on its geopolitical chessboard. If Washington considers Hong Kong as an unimportant variable in its geopolitical competitions with China, then adopting a straightforward certification will be understandable; But if Washington considers Hong Kong as a “Free World” outpost or at least geopolitical neutral ground in its geopolitical competitions with China, then adopting a conditional certification will be sensible.

Where will the autonomist movement in Hong Kong go next? Apart from looking at the local mobilizations, how the first annual certification under the HKHRDA will be specified by the U.S. should matter a lot.

*This article is part of the HongKongBrief, a monthly e-newsletter on the state of Hong Kong’s autonomy. You can subscribe here.

Brian C.H. Fong is a comparative political scientist based in Hong Kong. He is a public intellectual, founding and leading several civil society organizations in Hong Kong including Network DIPLOProgressive Scholars GroupHKBASE Hong Kong Business Association of Sustainable Economy, and Project Civic Autonomy. Follow him on Twitter: @brianfonghk