The series of iron-fisted moves last month in Hong Kong may seem sudden to international observers: Hong Kong government’s earlier reinterpretation of the China-Hong Kong relationship, the election of a pro-Beijing legislator to be a Legislative Council chair through a controversial mechanism, and Beijing’s recent decision to impose a national security law on Hong Kong. The desire to bring Hong Kong under the banner of “one country, one system” is not impulsive. Quite the contrary, it’s a calculated campaign to initiate a so-called “second reunification with Hong Kong” — since the first reunification after the handover, using a lenient soft-power approach, has supposedly failed.
What are Beijing’s calculations that motivate this bold campaign now? And more important, will the campaign work?
While I remain highly skeptical of solely applying the realist framework to study Hong Kong, Beijing’s mentality is nonetheless entirely realism-driven. It is therefore essential to use this lens to understand more of their thoughts.
COVID-19: A Golden Opportunity on the International Stage?
To start with, the coronavirus pandemic seems to have created an ideal backdrop for Beijing to push forward its iron-fisted policy toward Hong Kong. The West has been devastated by the pandemic, more so than China, and has been slower to recover economically. Instead of decoupling from China, Beijing thinks the West is desperate for an influx of Chinese capital and markets. This notion encourages Beijing to pursue brinkmanship, in the form of confrontative “wolf warrior diplomacy,” its escalation of sharp power, and, most recently, Hong Kong’s national security law. As long as the international community does not put their condemnation into action, Beijing will keep pushing the envelope.
Beijing is convinced that the chambers of commerce representing other countries in Hong Kong will always place profits above all else as long as the national security law does not threaten them. Business deals struck at the crucial moment can entice foreign businesses to use their lobby teams in their home countries in Beijing’s favor.
Although anti-China sentiment has become more mainstream, Beijing, the major beneficiary of globalization in the past two decades, has tied its destiny with various elites internationally. These “friends of China” can be swayed to safeguard Beijing’s interests, but the up-and-coming leaders in many countries look less friendly. Therefore, the window of opportunity for Beijing to act is closing before the new value-driven generation comes to power.
The Lack of Incentive Behind the U.S. and U.K.’s Escalating Rhetoric
While U.S. politicians from left to right are vocal against China, their ultimate goal, Beijing believes, is to win votes in the November election. They would hence avoid hurting the interest groups they represent and go easy on actions aiming to punish China, such as denying Hong Kong’s status as a separate customs territory, sanctioning Chinese companies listed in Hong Kong, or escalating the trade war.
Even though the Trump administration is ramping up the rhetoric to sanction China, protecting Hong Kong’s autonomy is not one of the United States’ core interests. In contrast, having control over Hong Kong is China’s core interest. Beijing would rather make concessions over other disputes with Washington in exchange for claiming victory in Hong Kong for its internal propaganda.
Britain, the co-signer of the Joint Declaration for Hong Kong’s handover, is arguably most entitled to denounce Beijing’s violation, which would give mandates to the United States to act. But Beijing is convinced that Britain, not as powerful as it used to be, will not make such a move. Beijing’s recent plans to withdraw businesses from the United States and list them in the London stock market is a move to place a wedge between the two powers. U.S. President Donald Trump’s unilateralism and his harsh stance against U.S. allies also strengthens Beijing’s conviction that the West will not follow the United States’ lead.
Beijing’s Divide and Conquer Strategy in Hong Kong
Hong Kong’s parliament, the Legislative Council (LegCo), is a major roadblock to Beijing’s control, as demonstrated twice since the handover — in 2003 when the national security law was first introduced and in 2019 with the anti-extradition legislation that sparked city-wide protests. In both setbacks, Beijing lost control when moderate pro-establishment legislators broke away from the party line in the face of public outcry. As the September LegCo election approaches, the last thing Beijing wants is for the election to become a de facto referendum on the single issue of the national security law, which could result in another landslide win for the democratic parties. The law would be untenable to the international community if it’s opposed by both pro-democracy voters, which according to polls account for 60 percent of the votes, and moderate pro-establishment voters.
The moderates, despite their reluctance to embrace hardline rule in Hong Kong, differ from the more militant faction within the non-establishment camp in that the former rejects the so-called “mutual destruction” option, which risks Hong Kong’s special trade status — its economic lifeline — as a bargaining tactic to force Beijing to back off. Now that Washington is considering withdrawing Hong Kong’s privileges, the possibility of mutual destruction is becoming real. As Beijing has been promoting a narrative that all supporters of the protest movement’s “Five Demands” are bringing about mutual destruction, Beijing hopes the moderates, in fear of losing their financial assets, might turn toward the establishment.
On the other hand, the pro-democracy camp is at risk of breaking apart. Moderate pro-democracy supporters have been going to rallies to keep up with the political momentum. However, marches with more than a million participants would be impossible under the current oppressive environment. For example, the authorities abuse COVID-19 social distancing measures to suppress rallies, permits for peaceful protests are increasingly difficult to obtain, pro-establishment businesses heavily censored the social media activities of employees, and outspoken individuals are often cyberbullied.
Without support from the moderates, some within the pro-democracy camp may radicalize, as Beijing expects. The radicalization would fit Beijing’s tactic of painting protests as separatism and terrorism, justifying the imposition of the national security law. The trajectory would be similar to Beijing’s handling of the 1959 Tibetan “riots,” during which Mao Zedong’s directive was “the more chaotic the scene, the better.”
The Nationalistic Agenda to Divert Domestic Attention
But after all, to Beijing, Hong Kong is not just Hong Kong. In the wake of the pandemic, Beijing urgently needs to uphold nationalism to divert unwanted attention from its economic crisis. That includes a global propaganda campaign to promote its triumph over COVID-19. Upgrading the Hong Kong protests to a national security issue — as a battle against foreign interference to complete the “reunification with Hong Kong” — best suits the nationalist atmosphere. The all-time low sense of belonging with China among the new generation in Hong Kong further justifies a strong-arm approach. The success of the strategy would offer a way to reunite with Taiwan, which would consolidate Xi’s leadership within the Communist Party.
Also, including the Hong Kong issue as part of the national agenda means that the Hong Kong government, which has already lost its will to govern, will dance to Beijing’s tunes.
This comprehensive crackdown on Hong Kong’s civil society is unprecedented. Beijing believes that the heavy-handed approach would pervade Hong Kong with a sense of powerlessness and bring it to its knees. As long as the international response is limited, the execution of the national security law, according to Chairman Mao’s “theory of contradiction,” will follow a script of “a soft hand” and “a firm hand.” That is, after its imposition, the law will initially apply restraint and be used only on individuals to set a stern example, so that the general public would feel as if the law does not impact them at all and property and stock prices would not fall. Gradually and subtly, if the realist formula of Beijing works, the “second reunification” could become a self-proclaimed success story for Beijing’s propaganda.
However, Beijing’s evaluations are not foolproof. Any single miscalculation could lead to a contradictory outcome for the People’s Republic of China. Is it really prepared?
Dr. Simon Shen is the Founding Chairman of GLOs (Glocal Learning Offices), an international relations start-up company. He also serves as an adjunct associate professor in the University of Hong Kong, Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and associate director of the Master of Global Political Economy Programme of the CUHK.
The author acknowledges Chris Wong, Sourdou and Alex Yap for their assistance in this piece.