China Power | Politics | East Asia

With a New Cold War on the Rise, What Next for Hong Kong’s Autonomy?

The West must decide whether and how to keep a foot in China’s door.

With a New Cold War on the Rise, What Next for Hong Kong’s Autonomy?
Credit: Flickr/ Whompoa Sports Club

April was another dramatic month for Hong Kong. China’s attack on pro-democracy legislator Dennis Kwok over the internal proceedings of the Legislative Council; its alleged interference in Hong Kong’s judicial independence; its push for national security legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law; its re-definition of the Liaison Office as a form of party committee oversight of the HKSAR government, thus standing above the Basic Law’s Article 22; its mass round-up of 15 pro-democracy activists including Martin Lee and Jimmy Lai; and its reshuffling of top policy secretaries of the HKSAR government with pro-China loyalists — all these incidents pointed to a growing trend. China is abandoning the cover of exercising its indirect rule through pro-China power elites in Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” model and is doubling down on direct rule.

Many reports point out that China has chosen this time to crack down on the democratic opposition in Hong Kong and tighten its grip because the West, particularly the United States, is preoccupied with the global coronavirus crisis and has little energy to respond. This may not be incorrect but runs the risk of missing the forest for the trees.

The “North Koreaization of China” and Implications for Hong Kong

China’s push for direct-rule over Hong Kong should be interpreted as part of its strategic response to the brewing new cold war. I will term this strategic response as the “North Koreaization of China,” an idea that John Hopkins sociologist Hung Ho-fung pioneered in 2015.

Since taking office in January 2017, the Trump administration has altered the direction of U.S. policy toward China from the decades-long engagement approach to a competitive approach. The United States is confronting China on various fronts from trade and technology to intelligence and military affairs. Amid the global coronavirus crisis, there are signs that a wider Sino-Western new cold war is on the rise: there are greater efforts at economic decoupling such as Japan’s effort to shift its supply chains out of China; rising demands in the U.S. and U.K. for international legal claims against China’s coronavirus cover-up, and stronger calls for a “reset” in relationships with China in countries such as the U.K. and Australia. The coronavirus crisis, which originated from China and spread to the world, may be recorded in history as another 9/11 moment prompting the West to wake up and change its course.

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On the brink of a new cold war with the West, China is undoubtedly facing unprecedented challenges in stabilizing its regime. Some pundits predict that the growing Western pressure on China will create new fragilities such as economic downturn, social discontent, and elite dissatisfaction within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), creating conditions for regime collapse in China. While one can never rule out the possibility that drastic regime change may happen in China, it remains highly speculative for the moment. What is happening, in the meantime, is the “North Koreaization” of the CCP regime.

To maintain its regime in the event of increasing pressure from the West, the CCP will adopt a two-pronged approach. Internally, the CCP regime will step up its “system of stability preservation” for strangling all forms of opposition. For example a new “Secure China Construction Coordinating Small Group” was recently set up under the CCP Central Committee to “defend political security” and “resolve conflicts related to the coronavirus outbreak.” Externally, the CCP regime will more forcefully beat the drums of Chinese nationalism and aggressively play the game of military brinkmanship across its peripheries so as to shift the blame of internal problems to “foreign forces.” China’s government has been manufacturing anti-Western conspiracy theories that the coronavirus virus was planted by CIA operatives within China, and combatively sending ships into the South China Sea and flying aircraft in the Taiwan Strait.

While China is undergoing this process of “North Koreaization,” the position of Hong Kong is particularly tricky. Thanks to its British colonial legacies and the autonomous arrangements as enshrined by the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, Hong Kong, with its internationalized autonomy, is the only place in China that accommodates a high level of opposition politics and offers a geopolitical neutral ground for a Western presence. From this perspective, cracking down on the pro-Western political opposition in Hong Kong echoes the main theme of the CCP regime on exercising internal “stability preservation” and playing an external blame game.

Most critically, when facing greater pressure from economic decoupling with the West, Hong Kong’s strategic importance to China as its financial lung will only become more critical for regime survival. Therefore, it is politically logical for the CCP regime to double down on its direct-rule in Hong Kong so as to firmly control its “financial lifeline” — expediting its plan to transform Hong Kong into a “Red China outpost” for its own regime survival. The CCP’s ideal result is for the inner workings of the “one country, two systems” model to be hollowed out in order to facilitate China’s direct-rule while the outer shell of the model is kept to prolong Hong Kong’s status as an international financial center.

The West’s Options in Hong Kong: Pull out or Keep a Foothold?

As Hong Kong rapidly transforms into a CCP stronghold against the backdrop of “North Koreaization of China,” conceptually there are two broad options for the West, particularly the United States.

First, the West could pull out of Hong Kong and terminate recognition of Hong Kong’s autonomous status. If Hong Kong has been fully brought under the direct rule of China and completely lost its decades-long geopolitical neutrality, it would become a great threat to the national security of Western countries. Hong Kong’s independent status under international and Western laws (e.g. its internationally recognized separate customs territory, shipping system, aviation system, financial system, and Hong Kong currency) will become the biggest loophole of any Western containment imposed on China and function as the best springboard for China to infiltrate the West. This option will make sense if the West considers it too late to prevent China from fully conquering Hong Kong.

If this is the case, Western countries can gradually pull out from Hong Kong by shifting their economic interests to other Western spheres of influence in East Asia, including shifting their financial and business operations to Singapore and high-tech operations to Taiwan. Once the pull-out has been completed, the West can terminate their recognition of Hong Kong’s autonomous status so as to plug the loophole in their containment of China. Washington, for instance, could abolish the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act and kick Hong Kong out of different international organizations such as the World Trade Organization.

The second option is for the West to keep a foot in Hong Kong by forcefully defending Hong Kong’s autonomy and thus their presence in the territory. This option will make sense if the West considers Hong Kong to have irreplaceable geopolitical value. While theoretically Hong Kong’s economic functions could be largely divided between Singapore and Taiwan, strategically it is the only place in China’s territory that until today accommodates pro-Western political opposition and free advocacy of Western values. Hong Kong’s geopolitical value as a transformative portal to influence China, of course, cannot be calculated quantitatively, as it is ultimately a matter of qualitative judgment.

If this is the case, the West can deploy various policy tools to deter China from extending its direct rule into Hong Kong. For example, the United States can take the lead to robustly enforce the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act by specifying the “conditions” for prolonging its recognition of Hong Kong’s autonomy in the annual certification report (e.g. drawing up “red lines” like Article 23 legislation) and sanctioning China collaborators in Hong Kong (e.g. Liaison Office officials and HKSAR government officials). Other Western countries such as the U.K. and Japan can follow the U.S. example by enacting similar “Hong Kong bills” so that they will have their own national policy tools to enforce their oversight of Hong Kong’s autonomy and protect their interests in the territories. Apart from enforcing oversight at the national level, the West can exert pressure on China by way of strengthening the United Nations’ monitoring mechanisms over Hong Kong’s autonomy (e.g. the UN Human Rights Committee can step up its monitoring role relating to the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in Hong Kong).

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On the eve of the CCP takeover of mainland China in 1949, the British decided to maintain their presence in Hong Kong, betting that “our best hope lies in keeping a foot in the door (of China).” History will not simply repeat itself; the contexts and dynamics in Hong Kong in 2020 are also different from 71 years ago. But once again, the West has to decide whether and how to keep a foot in China’s door. And time is running out for the West to respond.

*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 @brianfonghk.