17 June 2019

Xi Jinping backs off Hong Kong — for now


You would need to have a heart of stone not to have been moved by the sight of hordes of protestors — the organisers claimed 2 million — swarming through Hong Kong over the weekend.

It was the third public display of opposition to the Hong Kong government’s proposed Extradition Law in a week, and by the time they disbanded, the Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, had apologised to the protestors, and announced that the controversial Extradition Law had been suspended. Hong Kong’s worst political crisis since the handover in 1997, though, is far from over.

Hong Kongers have been concerned for many years about the progressive erosion of their civil liberties and the rule of law, as Beijing’s influence over Hong Kong steadily rises. The Extradition Law controversy, which Mrs Lam created and owned, actually started over the case of a young woman’s murder in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, by a Hong Kong man who returned to Hong Kong to seek refuge.

Lam sought to address the absence of an extradition agreement between Hong Kong and what China regards as the renegade province of Taiwan, which Beijing wants to reunite with the Mainland. She used the incident to create a Trojan Horse binding Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan and China in an extradition agreement, which she probably thought would endear her to Beijing. China’s leaders have long wanted her government to pass national security legislation enabling the rendition of Chinese criminals, corrupt officials or other citizens wanted by the authorities but who sought shelter in Hong Kong.

Lam’s law would have gone further, subjecting Hong Kong citizens and visiting foreign nationals to the law, along with allowing Chinese security agencies to ‘request’ the freezing of wanted persons’ assets in Hong Kong. She pushed the legislation through, riding roughshod over due process.

For Hong Kongers, this was a bridge too far. The first mass protest had no effect. The second in the middle of last week resulted in a police riot featuring random use of rubber bullets and pepper spray. Last weekend’s apologies and suspension of the bill no longer satisfied the protestors who want it withdrawn altogether, an impartial investigation into police conduct, and Lam’s resignation.

The status quo is that Carrie Lam’s position now hangs by a thread, and when the time seems right, she will probably be replaced. There is no timetable for the bill to be re-introduced, which probably means it is effectively withdrawn. The protest movement will feel optimistic and buoyed. If the government in Hong Kong or Beijing continue to try to crack down on their way life, citizens will know what they have to do.

Yet, this situation is ultimately toxic for the Chinese Communist Party, which was caught off-guard by what happened in Hong Kong. Its leader, Xi Jinping, with a reputation as an all-powerful, truck-no-nonsense leader, has had to bite his bottom lip and back away from standing up to mass protest. It will not have left him happy or quiescent. It would be naive, therefore, to imagine that the saga over rendition and national security legislation is over.

Even though the law was Carrie Lam’s project, it had Beijing’s blessing, and it would certainly have welcomed drawing Taiwan into its orbit of influence via the now suspended extradition arrangement. Under the circumstances though, Beijing has had to cool on this particular route forward, and hope that, for the moment the Hong Kong protest movement goes away.

The last thing China wants is to go to the G20 summit at Osaka next week with a political and social eruption going on in Hing Kong, and run the risk of a new row with the US, which, by removing Hong Kong’s special commercial status (vis a vis the Mainland), could lead to fresh and untimely economic trouble for Beijing.

Interestingly, the pullback demonstrates a sensitivity and brittleness that isn’t always apparent. We have already seen the government dial down the rhetoric on its signature industrial policy, Made in China 2025, and on President Xi’s key foreign policy strategy, aka the Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing will also have an eagle eye watching the Taiwanese presidential elections due next January, in which voters will look to Hong Kong’s experience to guide their own ‘one country-two systems’ confidence.

In the end, though, the Communist Party will not accept a situation where Hong Kongers have recourse to civil disobedience to restrict or block the national security legislation it deems essential. It cannot run the risk either that Hong Kong’s experience encourages others in the Mainland. Despite being isolated on the matter of Hong Kong, and regardless of Hong Kong’s special commercial status, it will eventually do whatever it thinks is necessary to bring its residents to heel, accelerating the whitewash of the one country-two systems pretence.

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George Magnus is the author of 'Red Flags: why Xi’s China is in Jeopardy', and a research associate at Oxford University’s China Centre, and at SOAS.