Why now? Understanding Beijing’s new assertiveness in Hong Kong

Supporters raise white paper to avoid slogans banned under the national security law as they support arrested anti-law protester, as a prison van leaves Eastern court in Hong Kong, China July 3, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

An hour before the toll of the midnight bell on July 1, 2020 — the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China from British rule — Hong Kong authorities promulgated a new national security law that had been sent from Beijing. The law gave sweeping new powers to authorities to crack down on acts of “secession, subversion, terrorism, or collusion with foreign or external forces.” Chinese authorities defended the decision as necessary for returning stability to Hong Kong. Outside of mainland China, most commentators lamented the new law as a heavy-handed effort by Beijing to impose its authoritarian impulses on Hong Kong. They warned that by eroding Hong Kong’s unique attributes — its free speech, free assembly, and legal transparency — Chinese authorities were mortgaging Hong Kong’s dynamism in pursuit of greater societal control.

China’s opaque policymaking process makes it difficult to determine what precisely prompted Beijing to act on Hong Kong now, and it remains too early to draw final conclusions. What drove Beijing to impose the new national security law on Hong Kong? Why now? What are the potential implications for everyday life and commerce in Hong Kong? What will be the impact on U.S.-China relations?

What caused Beijing to impose a national security law on Hong Kong?

There is an unresolved debate over whether the seeds of the national security law were sowed on the date of Hong Kong’s retrocession to the mainland in 1997, or whether the outcome was the result of a more recent, dynamic interaction of forces.

It has become popular to view Beijing’s imposition of its will on Hong Kong as a morality play with good versus evil undertones. Proponents of this view argue that Beijing always harbored malign intentions to squeeze Hong Kong, thus rendering recent events automatic and unavoidable. According to this argument, Beijing long wanted to dissolve the distinction between Hong Kong and other Chinese cities. The sooner Beijing could do this, the better it could ensure that Hong Kong did not serve as an inspiration for Chinese citizens desiring greater freedom to express their views, practice their religion, access information from around the world, and protest injustices. So, according to the argument, Beijing accepted the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration to respect Hong Kong’s separate system for 50 years because it wasn’t in a strong enough position in 1997 to insist otherwise. Now that Beijing is stronger, it is less inhibited from acting on its aspirations.

Other experts, such as Brookings scholar Richard Bush, see recent events more so as a tragedy, wherein a dynamic sequence of decisions caused all parties’ calculations to change, leading eventually to Beijing’s imposition of its will on Hong Kong. In this view, Beijing offered in 2013 to move forward with electoral reform, but only in a circumscribed way that fell short of the aspirations of pro-democracy leaders. Beijing’s offer was for “one person, one vote,” while still maintaining control over who could stand for elections. This proposal coincided with a split of anti-establishment factions in Hong Kong. A new generation of pro-democracy activists mobilized mass protests against Beijing’s limited offer, culminating in the Umbrella Movement in 2014. The scale of the Umbrella Movement and the international attention it attracted triggered Beijing’s neuralgias about national security and societal control; this became the lens through which China’s leaders viewed developments in Hong Kong.

After the Umbrella Movement tapered off, and in an attempt to forestall its reemergence, Hong Kong authorities crafted a revision to Beijing’s original design for electoral reform that left open a narrow potential pathway for the election of a moderate pan-Democratic chief executive. Such an outcome would have been a long shot. In the end, though, the possibility never was tested. The pro-democracy protesters by that point had become too divided and too embittered by the abuse they had received from local officials during the Umbrella Movement to take a chance on the proposal. Following the failure of Hong Kong authorities’ attempts to broker a deal on electoral reform, Beijing’s policies toward Hong Kong grew harder; the anti-establishment’s resistance grew more entrenched. Mounting societal pressure erupted into protests in 2019 that began peacefully but over time became punctuated by bursts of vandalism and violence — including incidents of local law enforcement using force to subdue protesters, which were captured in viral online videos.

Why did Beijing impose the national security law now?

Given the black-box nature of decisionmaking in Beijing, it is always hard to determine definitively what factors provided the impetus for Beijing’s policy shift on Hong Kong. Even so, there still are several data points that reasonably can be cobbled together to explain the timing of Beijing’s decision. It is quite possible that a confluence of six factors drove the decision on timing:

  • The annual National People’s Congress, where legislative decisions are made, likely served as an action-forcing event. After 2019’s tumult in Hong Kong, China’s leadership likely did not want to simply maintain a status quo policy posture. For context, the Basic Law (1990) requires Hong Kong to pass a national security law, which Hong Kong authorities did not deliver; Beijing never dropped the demand.
  • Beijing likely judged that the spread of COVID-19 would limit the risk of large-scale protests in Hong Kong in response to the new legislation.
  • A proposal for bold action that takes opponents by surprise fits Xi Jinping’s modus operandi.
  • Taking strong action on Hong Kong stoked mainland Chinese nationalism at a time of declining economic growth and rising domestic frustrations over public health and safety.
  • Beijing likely wanted to assert greater control over political developments in Hong Kong ahead of its scheduled September 2020 Legislative Council elections. Traditional establishment figures in Hong Kong no longer command the deference and influence they once enjoyed, and Beijing’s traditional reliance on Hong Kong’s elite to ensure order no longer seemed tenable.
  • President Trump reportedly told Xi privately he would tone down American criticism regarding Beijing’s approach to Hong Kong to help spur progress on U.S.-China trade negotiations. He also publicly praised Xi for handling the protests responsibly. As such, Beijing likely discounted American warnings below the presidential level to exercise restraint, as well as international objections. The U.S. posture of unswerving hostility toward China — as distinct from Trump’s own somewhat erratic attitudes — lowered the risk that any action on Hong Kong could worsen U.S.-China ties, since they already had become adversarial.

To be clear, Beijing’s actions were driven primarily by domestic considerations, not by anything the United States did or did not do. Beijing owns full responsibility for its decision. Even so, by adopting an adversarial national policy paired with an obsequious leader-level posture, the Trump administration lowered the bar for Beijing to act.

After Beijing announced its determination to impose a national security law on Hong Kong, President Trump delivered two separate statements from the White House Rose Garden to express opposition and announce punitive response measures. That these statements and actions were taken after Beijing announced its decision lends the appearance of seeking to compensate for prior passivity, rather than of advancing a strategy to reverse or moderate the implementation of the law.

What are the potential implications for life and commerce in Hong Kong?

Already the law has had a chilling effect. Anti-establishment leaders have erased their electronic profiles and, in some cases, fled. Schools have been instructed to revise their curriculum. Freedom of speech and expression have been curtailed. There have been reports of books being censored from libraries.

The four offenses identified in the law — secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign or external forces — have been vaguely defined. The person Beijing empowered to decide where the lines around these offenses should be drawn, Director Zheng Yanxiong of the newly established Office for Safeguarding National Security of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, has a reputation as a hardline enforcer. He earned this reputation through his involvement in violent suppression of protests in Wukan in 2016.

Foreign companies operating in Hong Kong have been scrambling to adapt. Media and technology companies have been the fastest to respond. The New York Times recently announced plans to relocate part of its operations to Seoul. Technology firms, similarly, are adapting to the arrival of digital surveillance and censorship from the mainland. Some technology companies have announced a pause in responding to data requests from local authorities. Others have considered migrating data storage outside of Hong Kong. Some technology companies have begun contemplating whether their employees in Hong Kong could be exposed to risk of arrest if the companies refuse to comply with demands from authorities for digital information.

In a July 2020 “temperature survey” by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong on the effects of the national security law, 76% of respondents said they were somewhat or extremely concerned about the new law, due mostly to ambiguity about enforcement. Even so, a sizeable majority of companies (67%) planned to take a “wait and see” approach to how the law will be implemented before pursuing alternate strategies such as departing or diversifying operations away from Hong Kong. Going forward, it remains possible that the law will be narrowly tailored only to address overtly political activities while preserving a degree of normalcy for economic and social life, but it is still too early to tell.

What will be the impact on U.S.-China relations?

Beijing’s gambit to tighten control of Hong Kong will create a cascade of effects on the U.S.-China relationship. At the most practical level, it already has set in motion a series of American policy adjustments to begin treating Hong Kong the same as any other Chinese city. Beijing has vowed to respond in a reciprocal fashion, thus perpetuating a tit-for-tat cycle that has been evident in other areas of the relationship.

Beijing’s tightening control of Hong Kong will sharpen the ideological edge of U.S.-China rivalry.

At a broader level, Beijing’s tightening control of Hong Kong will sharpen the ideological edge of U.S.-China rivalry. For Washington, China’s action on Hong Kong will be viewed alongside its intensifying domestic repression, particularly in Xinjiang; its tightening control over domestic dissent; its heavy pressure on Taiwan; and its expanding efforts to discredit liberal democracy as an underperforming Western conceit.

Looking ahead, the United States will need to consider carefully what interests it seeks to protect in Hong Kong and what tools it has to do so. This will be no easy task. A useful starting point will be an acceptance that policy on Hong Kong cannot be constructed in isolation. The U.S. will need to identify enduring objectives in Asia and vis-à-vis China, because these larger objectives will have a bearing on whether certain U.S. goals can be achieved in Hong Kong.

The more the U.S.-China relationship sinks into ideological enmity, the more China will view U.S. actions on Hong Kong in the most threatening light. U.S. officials and representatives of U.S. non-governmental organizations in Hong Kong will need to maintain discipline, as they do in other authoritarian states, about engaging in ways that reflect American principles but that do not imperil Hong Kong residents by overtly challenging red lines.

A goal of America’s presence in Hong Kong should be to keep as many relationships open with as wide a range of key figures as possible. The more American officials and organizations can preserve a productive presence in Hong Kong, the better the odds that elements of the “one country, two systems” model can be preserved. Forestalling worse outcomes and playing for time until the tide turns is not entirely inspiring, but sometimes it is the best available option. It certainly is better than pursuing a “destroy the city to save it” approach of wrecking Hong Kong to prevent Beijing from deriving benefits from it. America will need to keep front of mind the interests of Hong Kong’s middle class and youth, who will serve as important actors in the city’s future political development.

Another goal should be to use Beijing’s overreach as an opportunity to galvanize greater international coordination of positions and actions on China. The G-7 foreign ministers’ statement on Hong Kong provides a solid start. Washington should build on those efforts by working with interested countries to coordinate a private message to Beijing urging moderation on the scope and implementation of the national security law. It also should encourage coordinated actions, i.e., curtailing law enforcement cooperation with Chinese entities that implement the national security law in a manner that violates Hong Kong citizens’ legal rights. And if the White House were occupied by a president that did not hold anti-immigrant, nativist views, now also would be an opportune moment for the United States to open its doors to Hong Kong residents who wish to emigrate. Well-educated, industrious Hong Kong immigrants would be a boon to American competitiveness.

Not all is lost in Hong Kong.

Ultimately, Beijing has determined to treat Hong Kong as an internal issue. It has demonstrated tolerance for friction with the outside world in making its decision. Not all is lost in Hong Kong, though. The task ahead for the United States and others is to find ways to protect what is left in Hong Kong that makes the city special, to reassure allies and partners of America’s commitment to defending values, and to give Beijing pause from considering any further steps to infringe upon Hong Kong’s governance or conclude that it can afford to extend its adventurism to Taiwan.