China May Sacrifice Hong Kong to Achieve its Goals

HONG KONG — China long depended on Hong Kong to be everything it was not. The city’s freewheeling capitalism and personal freedoms, both absent from the mainland, made it one of the world’s premier financial hubs. Together, they flourished for decades.

Now China is doing what was once unthinkable: imposing its will on Hong Kong in a way that could permanently damage the former British colony economically and politically. In pushing for a new national security law that many fear will curtail the city’s liberties, the Chinese Communist Party is calculating that control and stability outweigh the benefits the city has long provided.

Other countries are threatening to retaliate in ways that could leave Hong Kong a shadow of its former self. The United States has vowed to end the special economic treatment it has long granted the territory. Britain has said it could open its doors to three million Hong Kongers, laying the groundwork for a severe brain drain.

But Beijing sees its position as strong while the rest of the world is divided and still recovering from the coronavirus pandemic. The United States will hurt itself more by coming down hard against Hong Kong, officials believe. Hong Kong’s protest movement, at least for the moment, seems demoralized.

And when it comes to the global economy, the Communist Party is wagering that the world needs China, with or without Hong Kong. The response of the business community has been muted so far. Even if it protested, business has always come back to China, whether in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown or the British handover of Hong Kong back to China in 1997.

“There will be some unhappy people for some time,” said John L. Thornton, a former president of Goldman Sachs who has longstanding ties with China’s leadership. “But the drum rolls, the dogs bark and the caravan moves on. That’s the political judgment. They have had a fair amount of empirical evidence that the concerns will disappear.”

On Wednesday, HSBC said Peter Wong, its Asia-Pacific chief, had signed a petition supporting the national security law.

Unquestionably, Hong Kong has declined in importance to China as the mainland economy has surged. In 1997, Hong Kong’s economic output was nearly one-fifth the mainland’s, making it a necessary growth engine for Beijing. Deng Xiaoping, then China’s top leader, had agreed to allow Hong Kong to keep its business and personal freedoms for decades to come, saying years earlier that “there was no other possible solution.”

Today, Hong Kong’s output is less than 3 percent of the mainland’s. While investors still prize Hong Kong’s rule of law, low taxes and transparent business environment, they have grown more accustomed to doing business in mainland cities like Shanghai, where the stock market is bigger than Hong Kong’s by value.

    Updated May 27, 2020

    • Where we left off

      In the summer of 2019, Hong Kong protesters began fighting a rule that would allow extraditions to China. These protests eventually broadened to protect Hong Kong’s autonomy from China. The protests wound down when pro-democracy candidates notched a stunning victory in Hong Kong elections in November, in what was seen as a pointed rebuke of Beijing and its allies in Hong Kong.

      Late in 2019, the protests then quieted.

    • How it’s different this time

      Those peaceful mass rallies that occurred in June of 2019 were pointed against the territory leadership of Hong Kong. Later, they devolved into often-violent clashes between some protesters and police officers and lasted through November 2019. The current protests are aimed at mainland China.

    • What’s happening now

      This latest round of demonstrations in Hong Kong has been fueled largely by China’s ruling Communist Party move this month to impose new national security legislation for Hong Kong.

      To China, the rules are necessary to protect the country’s national sovereignty. To critics, they further erode the relative autonomy granted to the territory after Britain handed it back to China in 1997.

Nevertheless, Washington believes Hong Kong is still too valuable for China to jeopardize.

President Trump said last week that he would strip Hong Kong of the special status granted to it by Washington. Depending on what he does, it could subject Hong Kong to the same tariffs and trade restrictions imposed on mainland China.

If the United States wants to raise the stakes sharply, it could harness one of its major strengths: its vital role over the global financial system.

China’s response has suggested that Beijing is willing to sacrifice Hong Kong to get its way. Other Chinese cities, like Shanghai and Shenzhen, have pledged to make investor-friendly legal and financial changes to fight for Hong Kong’s business. The resort island of Hainan has promised to turn itself into a free-trade port like Hong Kong.

More broadly, China sees the risk as limited.

In the face of Mr. Trump’s threat, for example, China is calculating that he is bluffing. American business interests in Hong Kong are extensive. If the White House takes the more drastic route of limiting Hong Kong’s access to U.S. dollars, Chinese banks have other ways to maintain access to the global financial system, said Victor Shih, an expert on the Chinese financial system at the University of California, San Diego.

Other rivals have been weakened. Mr. Trump is struggling to pass the blame for American missteps in dealing with the outbreak and is increasingly consumed with unrest at home.

Other Western democracies, historically allies of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, are preoccupied with their own crises. The United States, with its steady retreat from global leadership under Mr. Trump, is in no position to rally them, say supporters of both the protesters and Beijing.

“‘We expect foreign condemnation for everything we do’ basically is their attitude,” said Andrew Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia University. “‘You guys can bark all you want but you can’t bite, so what do we care?’”

Beijing’s gamble has already yielded gains in one key arena: suppressing the protests that inspired it to act in the first place. While some protesters have vowed an even more determined fight against the new security push, others acknowledged that the movement was fractured, tired and pessimistic.

Peaceful mass protests have been barred by laws aimed at containing the coronavirus. Those who join anyway are arrested en masse by an increasingly aggressive police force. Many of the front-line protesters who clashed, often violently, with the police have fled Hong Kong or have been arrested.

A few activists have clung to hope that China still needs and wants the world’s approval.

“If the rest of the world doesn’t trust China at all, they would have to gang up against China. Is this a way forward for China and for Xi Jinping?” Martin Lee, a prominent veteran democracy supporter, said. “We have to persuade them that it is ultimately and eminently in the interest of China that they win the confidence of the rest of the world.”

It is not clear that Beijing agrees. Mr. Lee, 81, who is sometimes called the “Father of Democracy” in Hong Kong, was arrested in April for his participation in protests last year.

Sahred From Source link World News

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