Hong Kong’s “finest hour” may also be it’s last as an autonomous entity under the flag of China. Veteran journalist Claudia Rosett, who’s covered both the communist mainland and virtual city-state of capitalist Hong Kong—and lived in the latter —is pessimistic.
But hundreds of thousands and sometimes more than one million of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million residents have protested repeatedly since Beijing accelerated its erasure of their “one country, two systems” arrangement last year. This means “they will not go gently into the night” of President Xi Jinping’s brutal dictatorship, Rosett told hundreds of participants on a Jewish Policy Center conference call June 11. And Hong Kong might thereby inspire mainland Chinese.
“People all want freedom, Rosett said, “but when deprived of it … they behave in strange ways,” including adopting what George Orwell called “doublethink” to square the reality they live with the government-imposed lies they are forced to believe. “China’s government is channeling all the hostility” felt against it “toward the United States and the West,” she asserted. “That where it gets dangerous.”
Rosett, a foreign policy fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, has covered Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa, including for 18 years for The Wall Street Journal. She exposed the U.N.’s corrupt “oil-for-food” program with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and North Korea’s labor camps in Russia’s Far East.
Last month China’s rubber-stamp National People’s Congress endorsed Xi’s move to extend Beijing’s censorship to Hong Kong. This means the international financial hub “is in the process of being obliterated as a free society,” Rosset said.
Nevertheless, “what’s happening there is quite remarkable,” she said of the mass pro-democracy movement that has taken to the streets repeatedly. And, underscored by the recent arrest of 15 movement leaders, “quite frankly, heart-breaking.”
The 1997 treaty by which Great Britain handed its colony of Hong Kong back to China claimed to guarantee the city far-reaching autonomy for 50 years. But like many treaties deposited with the United Nations, it included no meaningful enforcement mechanism, Rosett noted.
No Dissent Allowed
Rosset covered the 1989 anti-regime demonstrations in China’s capital. She was then editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal’s Asia edition. She reminded JPC call participants that a “democratic uprising took over Beijing for several weeks,” threatening the Chinese Communist Party’s claim to legitimacy. “Until this year, Hong Kong was the only place [under the Chinese flag] allowed to commemorate” the June 4 massacre of hundreds and more likely thousands of demonstrators in the capital’s Tiananmen Square.
This year, acting through a Hong Kong city government dominated by Beijing loyalists, Xi’s regime used coronavirus pandemic restrictions to bar the June 4 anniversary commemoration. Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers turned out despite the ban, Rosett said.
Xi became president in 2013, arranged the elimination of term limits to achieve “president for life” status, and then embarked on a drive to make China the leading world power. “It sounds like a bad movie but … he really does want to rule the world.”
Even before Xi’s elevation Hong Kong residents had staged massive protests against successive Beijing maneuvers to curtail the “one country, two systems” agreement, Rosett said.
In 2014, demonstrators opposed to a National People’s Congress plan for tighter screening of candidates for Hong Kong elections occupied the city’s central business district for more than two months. This “umbrella movement” elicited worldwide support, including some in mainland China. So, Rosset noted, Xi swore in a loyalist, Carrie Lam, as the city’s chief executive in 2017.
Lam’s attempt to pass legislation permitting extradition of Hong Kong residents charged with certain crimes to the mainland for trial sparked last year’s mass protests. Beijing eventually permitted Lam to suspend consideration of the legislation, but this did not win protestors what they ultimately sought, “a real say in their own government,” Rosset said.
Behind regulations to fight the pandemic that banned mass gatherings “China pushed forward to completely crush the pro-democracy movement,” Rosett observed. The arrest of movement leaders and the National People’s Congress approval of imposing Chinese law on Hong Kong confirm Xi’s policy of suppression.
Though the city is valuable to Beijing as its main interface with Western financial capitals, that does not counterbalance Xi’s compulsion to eliminate any enclave of democracy or dissent, Rosset said. Answering a question as to why China’s leader moved against Hong Kong now, she noted Beijing’s efforts to reabsorb the city “didn’t start under Xi … but accelerated” with him.
Now many China watchers admit that “engagement [by trade and other exchanges with the West] didn’t open China but enriched it to become a dangerous predator.” Already by 1999 Beijing “had stolen all our plans for advanced nuclear warheads and deployment,” she said. Earlier, after the United States agreed that the mainland People’s Republic of China replace Taiwan’s Republic of China at the United Nations in the 1970s, Beijing began influencing and even taking control of some U.N. agencies. It has used them to advance its policies, most recently seen by the World Health Organization complementing Chinese claims about the pandemic, Rosett added.
So, while the Trump administration’s statement it will no longer treat Hong Kong, with its previous financial and trade advantages, as separate from China, that alone will not rescue the city’s democracy movement. And with Hong Kong swallowed, China’s president will look next to Taiwan, she warned.
Washington could increase pressure on China’s Communist Party government by denying Hong Kong banks access to the U.S. Federal Reserve central bank. This would be a “huge” lever but American policymakers don’t know where such action might lead.
China’s duplicity in handling the coronavirus epidemic, which helped turn an outbreak in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, into a global pandemic, already has given people reason to be critical of Chinese government behavior, Rosett said. Though Xi’s regime now touts its aggressive “warrior diplomacy,” it ultimately does care about international opinion, she added. Its widely reported disinformation and influence operations provide backhanded confirmation of such concern.
Meanwhile, China protests the United Kingdom’s proposal to allow up to three million Hong Kongers to immigrate. Why should Beijing care? “Precisely because those people would be examples” many on the mainland would envy, Rosett said.