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May 22, 2020
Beijing Escalates Crackdown on Hong Kong
China's rubber-stamp legislature, the National People's Congress, is poised to consider a new national security law to tighten Beijing's vise on Hong Kong. By circumventing the local government, the proposal could deal a deathblow to Hong Kong's democracy and further heighten tensions with Washington. CNAS experts examine possible implications and outcomes for journalists to watch.
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- Richard Fontaine, Chief Executive Officer: "Beijing apparently wishes to end Hong Kong not with a bang but a whimper. While details remain sketchy, China’s proposed laws take direct aim at the democratic system it previously committed to protect. The result is likely to be crisis, not just on the streets of Hong Kong but in U.S.-China relations.
That will be new. Relations with Beijing have been highly strained, but cooler heads have prevailed when crises loomed. If China indeed crushes the vestiges of democracy in Hong Kong, expect a period of confrontation. Congress will seek sanctions, and the Trump administration may withdraw Hong Kong’s preferential trade status. Beijing will retaliate. And the world will watch as illiberal forces ensnare yet another population yearning for freedom."
- Ely Ratner, Executive Vice President & Director of Studies: "Beijing's proposal for a new national security law for Hong Kong is only the latest sign that Xi Jinping is willing to accept confrontation with the United States to achieve his political priorities at home and abroad. For nearly a decade, Xi has pursued increasingly illiberal domestic and foreign policies that directly challenge vital U.S. values and interests. This wrecking ball on the U.S.-China relationship has resulted in a growing consensus and commensurate flood of bipartisan bills on Capitol Hill to address various aspects of the China challenge. Expect Washington's reaction to the deteriorating situation in Hong Kong to be swift and pronounced.
To date, however, nearly every policy lever proposed by Congress and the Trump administration has relied on punitive measures to hold Communist Party leaders to account. This is important, as the United States should use its power and influence to stand against China's push for illiberal order. Nevertheless, U.S. policy is in dire need of greater emphasis on renewing America's own competitiveness. A strong, confident, and competent United States that is investing at home, united with its allies, and abiding by its values will do far more to set back Beijing's ambitions than any assortment of new penalties and sanctions."
- Daniel Kliman, Director for Asia-Pacific Security: "With Beijing poised to rebound from the global health crisis it triggered while Washington continues to grapple with the economic fallout of the pandemic, President Xi Jinping is increasingly emboldened. Perceiving the wind at his back—and simultaneously worried about domestic blowback over his government’s initial attempts to suppress information about the coronavirus—Xi taken a more aggressive approach on issues ranging from the South China Sea to Beijing’s role in international organizations, and now, Hong Kong. This blunt attempt to overturn Hong Kong’s remaining freedoms and autonomy will further catalyze a global reordering in which the world’s major democracies face off against an authoritarian and aggressive China."
- Elizabeth Rosenberg, Director for Energy, Economics, and Security: "The move by China to propose a new national security law that would allow Beijing to crack down on anti-government protesters in Hong Kong may catalyze a significant push for retaliatory sanctions from U.S. lawmakers. Congress passed a law late last year authorizing sanctions against Chinese and Hong Kong government officials responsible for human rights abuses in Hong Kong and calling for heightened official scrutiny regarding whether China is eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy. U.S. lawmakers are likely to call for tough implementation of the U.S. law’s provisions, including launching targeted sanctions on officials behind China’s most recent effort to suppress protests in Hong Kong."
- Martijn Rasser, Senior Fellow for Technology and National Security: "The CCP looks to signal that it is strong, in control, and done with the pandemic. Beijing made two big announcements this week. One, an ambitious $1.4 trillion infrastructure project focused on surveillance technology, 5G, automation, and reducing dependence on foreign tech. The other, a plan to dismantle what’s left of Hong Kong’s autonomy—the death knell of the one country-two systems model.
Both fit the Party’s need to justify its rule through nationalistic fervor and ever-greater power displays. While these announcements push the CCP narrative that China will be the driving force of the post-pandemic world, they also reveal how unimaginative China’s leadership is: yet another massive government-led spending plan, yet another crude assertion of sovereignty.
The timing also hints at a regime that is insecure and rattled. Vast spending in the hope of jumpstarting a battered economy and stimulating self-sufficiency as supply chain realignments loom. Expanding China’s surveillance network to spot outbreaks of dissent. Cementing control over Hong Kong to quash protests and thwart ‘foreign interference.’ These are actions of a regime uneasy about its grip on power and China’s economy, and eager to distract attention from its handling of the pandemic."
- Kara Frederick, Fellow for Technology and National Security: "This is yet another example of the Chinese party-state using national security as pretext to erode rule of law protections and aggrandize “internal” control. With expanded legal cover, I expect Beijing to accelerate its attempts to transfer the practices of its advanced surveillance state to Hong Kong. This includes the deployment of behavior-shaping technologies, expanded legislation to permit broad access to personal data by the state, and following through on a philosophy of “preventive” surveillance to preempt threats to stability before they arise. China will use the technology itself—and the laws that govern it—to continue to tighten the noose around Hong Kong."
- Kristine Lee, Associate Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security: "It’s impossible to separate the Chinese Communist Party’s latest power grab from the devastation that COVID-19 has wrought on both China and the world in the last several months. Xi Jinping staked his reputation on successfully navigating the crisis, and any indication that the CCP is not entirely in control of the situation thus needed to be stamped out – including through tightening its chokehold on Hong Kong and redoubling its efforts to crack down on freedom of speech, press, and assembly. The CCP has demonstrated remarkable nimbleness and ingenuity in leveraging crises to advance its aims and to project an image of total control. The imposition of the national security law in Hong Kong is an important part of this choreography, and the fact that Beijing is setting this in motion as countries around the world are still reeling from the pandemic serves as a signal to both domestic and international audiences that Xi is in control and that deft crisis management by the CCP has turned the tide of the pandemic in China."
- Ashley Feng, Research Associate for Energy, Economics, and Security: "This is just another step in Beijing eroding “one country, two systems,” and further emphasizes that Hong Kong can longer act or be seen as an independent actor from the CCP. The erosion in rule of law also includes commercial rule of law, and will have enormous economic and financial implications, as Hong Kong’s economic environment has always been seen as separate from that of other PRC metropolitan areas. These actions will also give more weight to calls by members of Congress to revoke Hong Kong’s special economic status and will further deteriorate economic relations between the United States and China."
- Josh Fitt, Research Assistant for Asia-Pacific Security: "As the pro-democracy protests approach their one-year anniversary, Beijing has officially abandoned their strategic bet that the benefits of an autonomous Hong Kong outweigh the costs to Party control. An intentionally vague law banning subversion of state power is a dangerous tool in the hands of an authoritarian government, and with Beijing moving to curtail the “one country, two systems” principle, Washington will no longer be able to justify special treatment toward Hong Kong garnered by the territory's autonomy. Once again, Beijing’s infamous “win-win” maxim only guarantees a win for the Chinese Communist Party."