The foreign ministers of United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom issued a joint statement on November 18 expressing their concern about increasing Chinese curbs on Hong Kong’s autonomy, and Beijing’s imposition of rules that would disqualify elected legislators in particular. The statement notes: “Following the imposition of the National Security Law and postponement of September’s Legislative Council elections, this decision further undermines Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and rights and freedoms.”
Earlier on November 18, Hong Kong police had arrested three former opposition lawmakers – Ted Hui, Eddie Chu, and Raymond Chan – on charges that they had disrupted legislative proceedings in May. (Seven legislators were also arrested on similar charges on November 1.) Last week, 15 pre-democracy legislators had quit the LegCo after China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee passed a resolution enabling the Hong Kong government to disqualify legislators Alvin Yeung, Dennis Kwok, Kwok Ka-ki, and Kenneth Leung. The Standing Committee resolution recommended disqualifying legislators who challenge China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong or otherwise endanger Chinese national security. (Jessie Lau has an explainer on what such disqualification of LegCo members may mean in terms of the future of the pro-democracy movement here.)
“China’s action is a clear breach of its international obligations under the legally binding, UN-registered Sino-British Joint Declaration. It breaches both China’s commitment that Hong Kong will enjoy a ‘high degree of autonomy’, and the right to freedom of speech,” the five-country joint statement noted.
The five English-speaking countries form the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, a unique coalition that grew out of joint signals intelligence collection and sharing since the early days of the Cold War. While the five countries have held ministerial consultations on a variety of security issues since 2103, their agenda increasingly involves geostrategic issues; since this year, the meetings have been explicitly labeled as “Five Eyes” events. For example, the U.S. Department of Defense readout of last month’s meeting of defense ministers of the five countries – the second such this year – used the term. While analysts have pointed out that converting an intelligence collaboration grouping into a policy coordination mechanism carries risks, this hasn’t prevented the five countries from doing so, as they focus on China and the Indo-Pacific at large.
What is interesting about the Hong Kong joint statement is that it eschews the Five Eyes moniker. Given that the brand connotes secrecy and conjures the shadowy world of intelligence, this was a wise call, especially as China continues to argue that foreign powers are egging on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.
Of course, this display of tact from the five countries hasn’t prevented China from lashing out at the joint statement. Referring to it as a statement from the “Five Eyes alliance,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian noted at the November 19 press briefing: “No matter if they have ‘five eyes’ or ‘ten eyes’, as soon as they dare to harm China’s sovereignty, security, or development interests, they should be careful lest their eyes be poked blind.” (Interestingly, as my colleague Shannon Tiezzi pointed out to me, Zhao’s original statement in Chinese and the English translation posted on the Chinese Foreign Ministry website vary somewhat, with the latter relatively toned down.)
Zhao also doubled down on China’s June decision to impose the national security law in Hong Kong. “Since the implementation of the Law of the PRC on Safeguarding National Security in the HKSAR, there have been no more so-called “beautiful sight to behold’ in Hong Kong. Isn’t that telling enough?” Zhao said. He was referring to an earlier comment by U.S. Speaker of the House of Representative Nancy Pelosi calling the 2019 Hong Kong protests – which Beijing dismissed as violent riots – as a “beautiful sight to behold.”