Once a world-class territory for entrepreneurs and investors, Hong Kong is now in trouble. Its full integration into the Chinese autocratic system began with the implementation of the National Security Law last year.
Proclaiming to safeguard security without deterring investment, Beijing has imposed a top-down authoritarian rule, dictated public discourse with state-run media, and replaced civil service professionals with ideological loyalists and independent judges with pliable cronies.
The new security regime authorizes the local government and police to employ violence to silence dissent and elicit obedience from Hong Kongers. Even though Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) and her cronies are firmly in power, they are morally bankrupt and callous, losing the legitimacy that they desperately need to govern.
Much attention has focused lately on the prosecution of veteran democracy advocates and conscientious journalists, the purge of popularly elected opposition lawmakers, and a crackdown on press freedom. However, very little has been said about Hong Kong’s diminishing status as a non-sovereign subnational entity.
Hong Kong’s autonomy under China’s “one country, two systems” framework allows for special treatment in trade relations, export controls, sociocultural and educational exchanges. This unique status laid the foundation for bilateral treaties with the US and other countries with respect to consular affairs, taxation arrangements, aviation and extradition, as well as legal services.
Furthermore, Hong Kong has pursued para-diplomacy, holding memberships in the WTO, the WHO, APEC, IMF and the Financial Task Force on Money Laundering. In sports, Hong Kong remains active in the International Olympic Committee and FIFA.
The territory still has dozens of Hong Kong Economic and Trade Offices in major trading nations to lobby foreign governments, facilitate free-trade agreements and advance its commercial interests abroad.
However, when the new security order overrides the common law system, Hong Kong is constitutionally no different from any Chinese city. Should Hong Kong continue to receive separate treatment as opposed to other parts of China? Should Taiwan, the US, the UK, the EU and the rest of the world alter their bilateral agreements?
Should the West implement the sanctions against Hong Kong Police Force for human rights breaches? Should global firms and non-governmental organizations review the new dangers posed by the evolving crisis?
Another worrisome problem concerns the strategic role of Hong Kong amid intensifying rivalries between China and the world. Given its proximity to China, Hong Kong used to be a vibrant international financial hub, thanks to its openness, transparent regulatory environment, and commitment to the rule of law and civic liberties.
In the Maoist era, Beijing adhered to the principle of “long-term planning and full utilization,” and used Hong Kong to bypass international restrictions after the Korean War. The territory enabled China to pursue illicit trade, earn foreign currency, and acquire medical and technological resources.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Hong Kong contributed tremendously to China’s economic reforms. Since China joined the WTO in 2001, the territory’s common law system has enabled many state-owned enterprises to attract foreign investments for sustainable development.
This history has been a model for other nations to treat Hong Kong separately from China and give it better terms. Hence, maintaining Hong Kong’s autonomy is beneficial to China’s national and local interests.
In a polarized world where Hong Kong is compelled to side with China, it is bound to lose its neutrality. Knowing that China continues to use the territory to access the outside world, the US has begun to restrict the transfer of international capital and sensitive technologies from Hong Kong to the mainland.
The new security arrangement has changed the rules of the game. Most importantly, it suspends the “one country, two systems” experiment that was widely thought to expire in 2047. When Hong Kong no longer offers the same legal protections and civil liberties that were once integral parts of autonomy, the world has to review and revise bilateral linkages and relations.
Coming to grips with this hostile international environment is crucial to recognizing the costs of violating the autonomous constitutional status.
For Hong Kong to survive and thrive, its political elites must return to a rules-based governance structure, end widespread police and judiciary abuses, and communicate with pro-democracy opposition groups and the civic sector.
Joseph Tse-hei Lee is professor of history at Pace University in New York City.
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