How do you unite US politicians in the Trump era? Act against China. The US Senate passed legislation on Thursday to sanction Chinese officials who implement the new Security Law in Hong Kong, a day after the House of Representatives did the same. It will be signed by US President Donald Trump today, all without one word or vote in opposition.
Beijing will have expected such displays of bipartisanship in Washington. The new Security Law is a milestone in China’s rise, a manoeuvre that the CCCP would not have dared 20 years ago, but now can do so with little worry about serious challenge from the US, distracted by its own internal divisions, and the UK, a country which has vowed to defend ‘one country, two systems’, after agreeing to hand Hong Kong back to China in 1997 on the premise that it would retain important features of autonomy from Beijing until at least 2047, but has little real leverage in doing so. All the UK can do is offer Hong Kong residents British citizenship, a path if taken which will not worry Xi Jinping in the slightest, who will be keen to clear out the cadre who had led the city in an almost permanent state of revolt last year.
It was amusing to witness Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab chastising HSBC – the bank that was created in 1865 to facilitate Britain’s opium trade in China in the years following the Empire’s victory in the opium wars – for backing the Security Law, which came into effect on Tuesday night. Raab said rights should “not be sacrificed on the altar of bankers’ bonuses”. The Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation is officially a City of London bank today, but it still issues 70 per cent of all Hong Kong dollars – and it knows its bread is no longer buttered by the British.
What does the Security Law mean in practise? It essentially hands over the Justice system and security of Hong Kong to China, providing sweeping powers to prosecute “hatred” towards Xi Jinping’s regime and allowing Chinese officials to investigate security issues which are “complex”, “serious” or “difficult”. Trials can be held in secret and without a jury, and judges can be selected by Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, who is an administrator answerable to Beijing. The sort of clashes we have seen on the streets of Hong Kong in recent years can be considered terrorism, including for instance damage to public transport. Some of the leaders of Hong Kong’s protest movement have already fled the country in fear of arrest, vowing to continue the struggle from abroad. Hong Kong’s current chief executive, Carrie Lam, claims the “vast majority” of Kong Kongers back the Law, and those who don’t are “the enemy of the people”. The words carry the implied threat of an imminent crackdown, with some protestors returning to the streets in recent weeks.
Time will tell how that plays out, in what is a key flash-point in the broader battle over China’s rise, which has been further consolidated by its ability to contain Coronavirus better than in the west. A new poll published this week on transatlantic opinion towards China shows that the Covid-19 crisis has had a big impact on views about the East Asian giant, with people in Europe and the US both believing China to now be more influential, but also with a significantly more negative interpretation of that influence. ‘China’ is likely to be a word used prolifically by Trump during the US Presidential election in November, as he seeks to galvanise hostility to the country as part of his bid for a second term. In reality, whoever wins the President election will likely ratchet up tensions with Beijing; it’s in the American state’s interest to seek to curtail China’s rise, as it is the primary economic and geopolitical threat to US hegemony.
China’s power-grab in Hong Kong will further push the UK – which has had a confused strategy towards Beijing, sometimes cosying up to Xi Jinping and then backing off when Washington comes calling – towards the US, as it sees one of its former colonies move further away from British influence. While the UK remains an important player in global affairs, it’s clear to see how its clout is waning.
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