How China is Curbing Freedoms in Hong Kong During COVID-19
written by Philipp Rombach and Chloe Sophie Bresson
Published as part of the Pandemic Policy Series, dedicated to exploring European and transatlantic policies and experiences during this unprecedented time in global politics.
When thousands of Hongkongers gathered for a June 4 candlelight vigil commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre they did so against the law-for the first time in 31 years. Hong Kong’s police had decided to ban this year’s peaceful protests under the pretext of social-distancing measures. Yet concerned Hongkongers might be closer to the truth when suspecting political motivations behind such controversial decisions.
Since May 28, the prospects of a free and independent Hong Kong acting as a financial, political, and cultural gateway to mainland China are looking increasingly bleak. Banning the annual June 4 vigils was merely the most recent incidence of oppressive behavior. Earlier the same day, the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, commonly referred to as LegCo, passed a law criminalizing mockery of the national anthem- China’s national anthem. These events, however, pale next to the backlash provoked by the approval of a national security law for Hong Kong by China’s National People’s Congress (NPC). The document came as a shock to Hongkongers and the world alike as it criminalizes separatism, subversion, terrorism, and foreign interference in the territory. Should Carrie Lam, the current Chief Executive, indeed introduce the controversial security law by decree, Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms could be forever lost to the claws of a mighty and increasingly expansionist dragon.
When Britain transferred sovereignty over the former colony to China in 1997, all parties had agreed on a quasi-constitution for Hong Kong. Recently, Article 23 of the Basic Law has been quoted often as it provides Hong Kong with the sole authority of enacting criminal laws, thus rendering illegal any imposition of the Chinese national security bill, ex ante. Although Hong Kong’s Secretary of Justice, Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah reassured the public of independent prosecutorial decision-making, observers and activists fear the potential stationing of the mainland’s secret police forces in Hong Kong. The proposed law and the backlash it triggered echo the massive protests that paralyzed the city throughout 2019 when a proposed and later scrapped extradition bill stoked fears and anger.
As the world has turned inwards to handle and contain a global pandemic and its domestic implications, the timing of the national security law should not come as a surprise. All over the planet, the pandemic has seen autocrats-real ones and wannabes-falling back on the same old strongman tactics: curbing freedoms, detaining political enemies, fostering oppression, and denying any ill intentions. Yet not even President Xi could have foreseen the vicious brilliance of his timing.
The intensity and magnitude of the protests arising from the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have dramatically and suddenly shifted transatlantic media attention as well as the political focus of the U.S. government. Although we, the authors, support the Black Lives Matter movement wholeheartedly, the necessary re-focusing on systemic racism and police brutality in the United States comes at a high cost for Hong Kong’s freedom movement. Only if the liberal West perfectly plays the subpar cards it has been dealt, a more democratic future for Hong Kong might be preserved.
So far Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States have released a joint statement condemning and denouncing the NPC’s move to impose a security law on Hong Kong. The U.S. went one step further by threatening to retaliate with sanctions against officials and stripping the territory off its special trading and customs status. This, however, could add substantial pressure and additional risks to Hong Kong as the world’s third most important financial hub. If worries among investors about the fungibility of parked money spread, Hong Kong could witness a simultaneous withdrawal of money. Such an economic earthquake would likely destabilize this 10 trillion-dollar financial hub and could quickly transform into a financial shock big enough to severely damage China and the world economy. Meanwhile, the deterioration of the rule of law following a potential imposition of the national security bill could push businesses to relocate to Singapore or even Taipei.
After the first international joint statement, the High Representative of the European Union, Josep Borell, declared, albeit reluctantly, the EU’s “grave concern” on the issue. Despite Borell’s declaration condemning China for not conforming with the constitutional principle of one country, two systems, the EU’s statement disappoints up to the point of embarrassment. Once again the EU demonstrated its incapability to preserve and project its inherent values and liberal ideals beyond its sphere of influence. The EU’s tragic reluctance to take a tougher stance against Beijing can be attributed to its strong internal division which has consequently been described by one EU diplomat as schizophrenic. Particularly Eastern and Southern European countries often view China as a strategic partner due to China’s substantial infrastructure project investments in the context of Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative. Other member states, such as France and Germany, have taken a more critical stance towards China, regarding the country as a systemic rival.
This is not to say that the European Union is without leverage. While the United Kingdom is already reevaluating its previous assessment of Huawei as a potential 5G telecommunications provider it is expected that other EU-27 members will follow suit. The EU must make it unmistakably clear that cracking down on Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy will not come without a hefty cost. To send a strong signal to Beijing, the European Union should recalibrate its Taiwan policy and foster cooperation with Taipei. Some member states might even be willing to go as far as to recognize Taiwan’s independence. However, the EU faces a dilemma here: how to maintain a more confrontational political stance towards Beijing without damaging Sino-European trade relations?
There is clearly no easy way out of this dilemma. Yet, considering that the EU is China’s most important trading partner and that China-relying on domestic political stability-can hardly risk additional blows to its economy, should allow Brussels to adopt a more self-confident China grand strategy. Particularly mercantilist nations such as Germany and the Netherlands are well positioned to lead the bloc’s response to President Xi’s geopolitical gamble.
The European Union is a union built on the memory and remains of totalitarianism; a union founded on the ideals of freedom, peace, and democracy; a union of East and West. The European Union, as a union of values and ideals, must thus recognize that now is not the time to remain silent.
Now is the time to speak truth to power.
Chloé Sophie Bresson is a French senior student at Waseda University in Tokyo and the Head of Research of her Chapter. Her academic interests include international security, terrorism and conflict studies, public policy, and diplomacy. In conjunction with her studies, Chloé is interning at Refugees International Japan, a Japanese NGO that provides opportunities for displaced people to lead an independent life.
Philipp Rombach graduated from Technical University of Munich with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Electrical Engineering and Information Technology. Simultaneously he pursued a degree in Political Science at Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich. He is looking forward to joining the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in fall 2021 for an MA in Transatlantic Affairs. Following his travels to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China he became increasingly passionate about Sino-Western relations.
 “Thousands of Hongkongers Defy Ban and Gather to Mark Tiananmen Anniversary,” South China Morning Post, last modified June 04, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEfDyz 7Uf0c&feature=youtu.be.
 Lily Kuo, “Chinese Parliament Approves Controversial Hong Kong Security Law,” The Guardian, May 28, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/28/china-vote-npc-national-security-laws-hong-kong-us-protest.
 “China’s Proposed New Security Law for Hong Kong: Joint Statement,” Foreign & Commonwealth Office, May 28, 2020, https://www.gov.uk/ government/news/joint-statement-from-the-uk-australia-canada-and-united-states-on-hong-kong.
 “Declaration of the High Representative on Behalf of the European Union on Hong Kong,” Council of the European Union, May 29, 2020, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2020/05/29/declaration-of-the-high-representative-on-behalf-of-the-european-union-on-hong-kong/.
 “Countries and Regions: China,” European Commission, last updated June 11, 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/countries-and-regions/countries/china/.
Originally published at https://www.europeanhorizons.org on June 22, 2020.