On Thursday last week, as the last-ever edition rolled off the presses, the lights went out at Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper. It was a dark day for freedom of speech, condemned around the world.
The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) influence over Hong Kong’s legislature has moved on to controlling free speech. If anyone were still in doubt, the “one country, two systems” framework is officially dead.
In response to the CCP dictatorship’s systematic demolition of Hong Kong’s legal system, freedom of expression and free market, the US Congress in 2019 passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. The US’ ability to use that act to apply economic pressure as a counterbalance to the dictatorial regime in Beijing could be the factor determining the outcome of the struggle between liberal democracies and the totalitarian communist regime.
The provisions of the act state that if China continues to squelch freedoms and human rights in Hong Kong, the US government would annul its preferential trade and customs treatment for Hong Kong. If permanently revoked, Hong Kong would lose its status as a global center for free trade and finance, and foreign investors would pull out en masse, disinclined to enter the Chinese legal, economic and financial system.
This would result in a hollowing out of Hong Kong’s position as a transit hub for trade into China and the territory’s financial system would no longer be used as a conduit to provide Chinese currency with access to global financial markets. All of this would have a profound impact on the growth of China’s economy.
Under pressure of Washington’s threat to permanently revoke Hong Kong’s special privileges, the question is if China, in consideration of the likely economic impact, would cease sticking its dictatorial oar into Hong Kong’s affairs.
The CCP might conclude that as the proportion of China’s overall GDP to which Hong Kong contributes has fallen over the years relative to Shanghai and Shenzhen, these two cities are in a position to replace Hong Kong’s function as trade and financial hubs.
After all, the CCP believes that the four decades since China’s opening up has proved that its fusing of market economics with centralized communist rule is a winning formula that has produced a degree of governmental efficiency superior to inefficient capitalist liberal democracies.
The unyielding measures adopted by the CCP toward Hong Kong demonstrate the underlying logic that underpins its style of governance: So long as the government gives people the economic freedom to get rich, the people do not need political freedom or freedom of speech, and there is no need to guarantee their human rights.
The CCP believes that its continued adherence to “socialism with Chinese characteristics” has enabled the country to become more efficient, outstrip democratic nations and become the world’s second-largest economy, crisscrossing the country with a dense transport and communications network and covering its cities with row after row of skyscrapers.
However, behind the facade of thrusting towers and gleaming infrastructure lies a different story. To achieve this breakneck growth and development, too many peoples’ rights and interests have been trampled, and so many corners have been cut that public infrastructure projects are riddled with problems.
Chinese officials forcefully demolish homes and provide little to no compensation to their former owners. Discontent among the dispossessed is rife, yet protest is disallowed. As there is no system of democratic elections in China and officials are appointed by the party, there is no legislature or public debate that can scrutinize and supervise government officials.
A manufacturing company that needs electricity or water supply to its facility must use its influence through unofficial channels, and as a result, corruption within local governments is rife.
China’s high-speed rail network is suffering from subsidence, the Three Gorges Dam suffers from many deficiencies, and other public infrastructure and engineering projects have been built hastily with substandard materials. China’s rivers and waterways are contaminated, while air pollution and other forms of environmental degradation pose a serious problem.
Medical care and public hygiene lag behind Taiwan, Japan, the US, Europe and many other countries, and China’s yawning wealth gap, rural inequality and unequal development continue to worsen. Average income levels in China are also far below those in Taiwan, Japan, the US, Europe and other democratic nations.
Under the CCP dictatorship, official corruption runs almost unchecked, the legal system services political interests, and there are no guarantees to property rights or freedom of speech. Everything in China must ultimately serve the interests of the party above all else.
In recent years, the CCP has implemented a “digital dictatorship” with cutting-edge technology used to surveil the public’s every move and every utterance on an unprecedented scale. In Xinjiang, the digital dictatorship has been implemented to devastating effect, trampling on human rights and facilitating the incarceration of millions in “re-education” concentration camps.
The CCP’s much-vaunted economic rise actually relies on unfair trade practices while pilfering the industrial secrets and intellectual property of the US and European nations. After Washington imposed stringent trade tariffs, China’s economy faced disaster, exposing China’s lack of liberal and democratic institutions and highlighting the shortcomings of its development model.
If Shanghai replaces Hong Kong as China’s financial hub, how will China avert the next economic crisis?
As the US, in its position as the de facto figurehead for the world’s democracies, seeks to match its rival using economic sanctions, we will find out whether the CCP possesses enough political capital to weather the storm and continue its campaign of oppression in Hong Kong. It is a test of competing ideologies: liberal democracy pitted against communist totalitarianism. The entire world is watching.
One thing is certain: The CCP’s next move will be closely tied to issues surrounding Taiwan. President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) must keep a tight handle on the situation and make full use of Taiwan’s international influence in being ready to respond.
Michael Lin is a retired diplomat who served in the US.
Translated by Edward Jones
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