The Chinese leadership’s decision to introduce national security legislation in Hong Kong has attracted global attention and condemnation. This move was unsurprising, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been trying to tighten control of the autonomous city over the past years and the lack of a national security law has been a sore spot for almost two decades. Yet it was also unexpected – it came at a moment when, as the report of a well-known think tank with ties to the country’s Ministry of State Security described, China faces the most difficult geopolitical environment since 1989, with anti-China sentiment at its highest.
Introducing national security legislation in Hong Kong less than a year after massive protests and a resounding electoral defeat, just four months before Legislative Council elections — all while the COVID-19 pandemic has focused the world’s attention and criticism on China, countries everywhere are rethinking their China policies and exploring how to shorten supply chains, and the United States government is hitting China in almost every way it can — makes no sense. Chinese leaders certainly understood that such a move would be bad for their country from a diplomatic, geopolitical, or economic point of view. Yet they did it anyway. Why?
Because, while bad for China, it makes a lot of sense politically for the CCP, Xi Jinping and the current leadership. For example, Party leaders have already been warned, sometimes publicly, by prominent Chinese international relations experts about the risks and dangers of the rising trend of aggressive diplomacy. Yet even when they saw the negative consequences unfolding before their eyes, they still didn’t abandon this aggressive style. The general view outside of China is that this policy has been adopted largely to stoke Chinese nationalism and shore up support for the party, regardless of its damage to China. Unfortunately, other Chinese actions are judged strictly from a realist foreign policy perspective, without paying enough attention to domestic pressures, party dynamics and political motivations, which are sometimes more prominent in Beijing than in other democratic capitals.
This raises the worrying possibility that introducing the national security law now (as opposed to sometime later) isn’t so much about Hong Kong, but about Beijing. If we accept that Xi and CCP leaders were aware of the blowback their Hong Kong decision would generate, then one of their main reasons for taking this decision now could have been specifically to strengthen the party’s domestic image and popularity, while generating foreign attacks on China, which will increase nationalism.
Even though China successfully managed to deal with the COVID-19 epidemic and later contrasted this approach to the situation in western Europe and the United States, improving its domestic image in some segments of the population, there are still internal risks, especially economic ones. The impact of the shutdown in China and the possible return of the coronavirus, combined with the economic downturn in export markets and trade and economic tensions with the U.S., might spell trouble later this year.
China’s GDP already suffered a 6.8 percent contraction in the first quarter, something unprecedented in the reform and opening-up period. Unofficial figures estimated the real unemployment rate after the shutdown at almost 10 percent. Premier Li Keqiang’s candid admission that 600 million Chinese citizens still have monthly incomes under 1,000 renminbi speaks to the economic problems the government faces, as does the attempt to boost employment through the “street-stall economy.” Yet the debates and contradicting messages from different parts of the government and the CCP regarding street stalls hint at the fact that there isn’t unity within the Party leadership on how to tackle the economic issues China faces. And all these economic issues could one day translate into political issues. Aware of this fact, in June, the CCP established a task force to boost political security. Considering the economic outlook and the general political climate, combined with the difficult international environment, Xi might be feeling pressure and seeing potential risks from both the Party leadership and the wider public.
What better way to preempt such political risks than shoring up support for the Party by portraying it as the defender and savior of China’s territorial integrity, sovereignty, and dignity? While over the two months before the Hong Kong legislation was announced, there were growing calls in China for a military takeover of Taiwan, such an action would be extremely risky and costly. Hong Kong, on the other hand, is an easier target, but no less fruitful when it comes to playing to nationalist sentiment among the Chinese public. The nationalist bent among Chinese citizens has already reached such heights that authorities had to shut down numerous social media accounts that went too far, including by claiming that some neighboring countries, such as Kazakhstan, are eager to “return” to China.
It was very predictable that the United States, the United Kingdom, and others would criticize the law and might even impose sanctions. Protests in Hong Kong, including violent ones, were also predictable. But, while costly, there is no reaction that the Party cannot manage, as it is clear there’s no appetite in Washington, London, or Brussels for a huge fight over Hong Kong, with all the inevitable economic consequences. The external criticism would only strengthen the CCP, which could depict it as foreign interference in Hong Kong, one of its main arguments for the national security legislation.
And so things fell into place. All over the world, there has been an uproar. The U.S. secretary of state announced that Washington no longer considers Hong Kong autonomous, setting the stage for imposing economic costs. Members of the U.S. Congress have proposed bills to punish China and its leadership; one that proposes recognizing Hong Kong as a country is especially far-fetched (and short-sighted, as it plays right into the CCP’s hands, lending credence to the theory that the United States’ ultimate goal is Hong Kong independence). London criticized the “serious breach” of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and announced measures of its own. The U.S., the U.K., Canada and Australia issued a joint statement condemning the move. The G-7 followed suit. The EU issued its own statement. A U.N. Security Council meeting on Hong Kong was unsuccessfully called. The Party created for itself the perfect opportunity to pit China against “foreign hostile forces.”
Even if many foreign critics are placing the blame on the Party, picturing the situation in Hong Kong as a struggle for freedom, in China, over the past year, the extensive propaganda apparatus has painted it as a struggle for China’s sovereignty against Hong Kong “rioters” and “separatists.” At home, the CCP can present its decision as perfectly legal and even a responsibility that fell on the Chinese leadership, because of Hong Kong’s failure to enact national security legislation. Meanwhile, the United States is portrayed as the “black hand” sowing chaos in Hong Kong.
While there is no clear data from public surveys, the general impression is that there is only limited sympathy in mainland China for Hong Kong’s struggle. As calls for independence in Hong Kong are intensifying, while foreign powers are becoming more critical about Beijing’s actions, fanning nationalism in China with become ever simpler. And as long as the CCP holds tight and doesn’t appear weak in the face of foreign pressure, it can strengthen its public support.
Throughout the years, there have been worries that the Chinese leadership might one day adopt an aggressive foreign policy, or even start a war, just to distract from domestic problems and rally public support. Hong Kong offers an opportunity for the same positive results for the leadership, but without the risks and costs of a war.
It is difficult to say whether the Chinese leadership decided to introduce the national security law in Hong Kong now specifically to pit China against foreign critics and inflame nationalist sentiments, or whether the main driver was simply to deal with the situation in Hong Kong, with the timing being coincidental and inflamed nationalism being just a beneficial side-effect. Whatever the reason, their decision clearly illustrates how little Chinese leaders care about geopolitical or economic costs when compared to political imperatives of strengthening internal control. Thus, the hard reality is that foreign pressure on China regarding on Hong Kong will only strengthen the CCP’s domestic position, if it isn’t well thought-out.
What does this mean for U.S. and Western policymakers? First of all, a thorough examination of Chinese public opinion, either through surveys or social media analysis, is vital in charting the right path and should be used to generate ideas about how to engage with the Chinese public. The obsession with imposing costs and “not letting China get away with it easily” ignores the entire domestic political landscape and simply assumes that the CCP leadership is driven by a combination of ideology (regarding the desire for stronger control) and realpolitik (regarding the use of a simple cost-benefit analysis of economic and diplomatic consequences). It ignores any political motivations driving the Chinese leadership’s decisions.
Unless the United States is willing to impose devastating costs on China or even go to war, this move cannot be undone. Meanwhile, all these measures to punish China and drive up the costs of this decision aren’t helping Hong Kong, but they are strengthening the CCP’s narrative of “foreign hostile forces” trying to split Hong Kong and create chaos in China. If U.S. policymakers are honest when they claim that the Party, not the Chinese people, is their real enemy, then strengthening its domestic position by driving the Chinese people and the CCP closer together is a huge mistake. Right now, the United States is focusing too much on measures that would punish China (or even worse, Hong Kong) and too little on how to engage Chinese citizens and win them over. Rhetoric is also important – how many statements critical of the national security legislation began by stating, “We believe Hong Kong is and must always remain a part of China.”
Because of the Great Firewall, but also because of neglect, the Chinese public has largely been abandoned to CCP propaganda. The U.S. and its allies are thus caught between a rock and a very hard place: Do nothing and the Party leadership gets its way; attack “China” and it might drive up nationalism and strengthen support for the CCP. This dilemma pertains to more issues than simply Hong Kong. Some in China undoubtedly see beyond the propaganda and understand that Hong Kong’s struggle is about freedom, not separatism. Others might not necessarily trust the official narrative, but still worry about Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong and how the United States might have malign intentions. Yet many who simply do not have access to fair, unbiased information have been influenced by Party propaganda, and believe that Hong Kong “separatists” and “foreign hostile forces” need to be dealt with, which the CCP is now doing. This is a reality that the United States and many other countries seem to have almost no interest in addressing. Yet simply ignoring it will not make it go away.
Fighting for freedom is important in this struggle for global supremacy between the United States and China, but if the Chinese people end up seeing Hong Kong through a purely nationalist lens, it will only sabotage the larger fight for freedom in China. Foreign governments, and even Hong Kong protesters, have to take all these nuances into account when deciding the next steps. They must think carefully about how to counter CCP propaganda and break its monopoly on shaping the domestic narrative. If not, the United States and the West might end up unintentionally helping Xi and the Party, while still losing Hong Kong.
Andrei Lungu is president of The Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific (RISAP).