China has decided to end any semblance of self-government for the city of Hong Kong. The mainland government could no longer tolerate either the protests against Chinese suppression of democracy on the island or a local legislature that sometimes bucked directives from the central authority in Beijing.
China shredded agreements, which were supposed to be in effect through 2047, to maintain a separate system of self-government in Hong Kong. The idea was known as “one country, two systems.” In May, China bypassed the democratically elected Legislative Council of Hong Kong to impose a national security law on the city.
China is only injuring its own interests and the people of Hong Kong by this decision. The U.S. and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are right to bring pressure on China to reverse course and maintain democratic rights in the island city. Many experts say the law will weaken Hong Kong’s reputation as a good place to do business.
In a final blow to any charade of maintaining freedom in Hong Kong, the pro-China Hong Kong government pushed through a law banning “insults” to the Chinese national anthem. In the typical language of totalitarian law, the term insult used to denote a violation is impossibly broad — it makes for an easy conviction though. The penalties for a violation are severe — up to three years in prison and the equivalent of a $6,000 fine.
China already was cracking down on several years of protest by Hong Kong’s citizenry over increasing breaches of human rights, but now that crackdown is being normalized through the law.
The tough line taken by the Chinese central government continues to destabilize Hong Kong. China would be better off culling taxes from a prosperous Hong Kong than making it more difficult for the city to recover from the damage done by the coronavirus, which came on top of a recent economic downturn.
Now the city and China face economic penalties by the United States, which is planning to remove the favored trade status the city enjoys.
Hong Kong had long been part of the British Empire. Despite its colonial status, Britain loosened its grip and local control allowed virtual self-government and created a thriving economy. After long negotiations, Britain turned Hong Kong over to China in 1997 with some guarantees that China would allow Hong Kong to maintain its institutions.
The democratic institutions of Hong Kong — the right to assemble, the freedom of the press and free elections — are what the people of Hong Kong want to maintain. Acknowledging the mainland government is not the issue; the people of Hong Kong simply want to maintain their way of life and want the Beijing government to leave them alone.
Letting the city forge its own path, while continuing to acknowledge the sovereignty of the mainland Chinese government, would go a long way toward quelling protest and improving the relationship between the city and the rest of China — and the world.