China's crackdown in Hong Kong could be the start of a new cold war

MARK ALMOND: China’s crackdown in Hong Kong could be the start of a new cold war

For decades Hong Kong has been a small island of freedom attached to the one-party dictatorship that is mainland China.

Yesterday in Beijing, the ruling Communist Party made clear that China plans to change all that.

At its annual charade of a parliament, the National People’s Congress – which meets every year to rubber-stamp whatever the Politburo decrees – a key item on the agenda was a new security law for Hong Kong.

The law would outlaw what Beijing defines as ‘terrorism, secession and treason’. It is an assault on Hong Kong liberties which is likely to abolish free speech and make dissent illegal. And it is almost certainly a response to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong that in the past year brought millions on to the streets, posing the biggest challenge to China’s rule since the handover in 1997.

Pan-democratic legislators scuffle with security as they protest against new security laws during Legislative Council’s House Committee meeting in Hong Kong

Dissidents in China know how such laws operate – they turn any criticism of the Communist Party’s policies into a crime.

The rest of the world may be pointing fingers at Beijing’s efforts to hush up the early stages of the coronavirus in Wuhan, but the truth is that Covid-19 worries Beijing less than Hong Kong.

This is because the pandemic primarily threatens ordinary people – whereas Hong Kong, an island of self-government and democracy inside China, could slip the virus of dissent through a chink in the one-party state’s armour. Dissent that could infect more than a billion Chinese.

Since the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, China has claimed that it is abiding by the ‘one country, two systems’ policy which allows Hong Kong to operate independently of China and was a key demand for the territory’s future governance during the handover talks.

But Hong Kong’s rights to make its own laws and to enjoy media freedoms unknown in the rest of China have increasingly been suffocated by the Communist regime.

China’s authoritarian behaviour towards the territory led to a year of often violent street protests in Hong Kong. These were brought to a halt by the arrival of the coronavirus and strict social distancing.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Wu Chi-wai  scuffles with the police during a march against new security laws near China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong

The absence of protests provided the perfect opportunity for China’s President Xi to cynically enact the catch-all security law. Even as the proposed legislation was announced the Chinese premier insisted the ‘one country, two systems’ policy would be strengthened as a result. That was classic Communist double-think.

What Beijing wants is to reduce Hong Kong to the level of its so-called ‘autonomous regions’ such as Tibet or Xinxiang. MPs from China’s ethnic minorities wearing colourful folk costumes dot the country’s parliament, but they vote only one way – like all the others.

The turbulence of Hong Kong’s politics is an affront to the conformity cherished in Beijing. The real fear is that under the cover of the new law, China will impose the kind of police state which enforces thought-reform on trouble-makers elsewhere in China, especially on Buddhists in Tibet and Muslim Uyghurs in Xinxiang.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam holds a press conference in Hong Kong after attending the opening session of the National People’s Congress

Optimists suggest that China would never do to a vibrant economy such as Hong Kong what it has done in its remote poverty-stricken regions. Would Beijing really risk killing the goose which lays so many golden eggs and vast commercial and financial influence across the world?

But that is to misunderstand President Xi’s and the Chinese Communist Party’s mentality. Every time push has come to shove in the past, holding on to power at whatever cost has been the party’s one consistent principle.

For 40 years it has allowed its people to make money but it does not countenance any challenge to government authority.

Eddie Chu, a pro-democracy lawmaker, is removed by security during a scuffle with pro Beijing lawmakers

The street protests in Hong Kong were an affront to Beijing, but the inability of its local appointees to get anything done in the territory’s legislative assembly, which has been in existence since 1997, was the final straw. Now, Beijing has decided to act. Secret police could soon be stalking the streets of Hong Kong and compliant courts stifling dissent and freedom of thought, while dissidents could be ‘disappeared’. Western companies and business could soon be fleeing Hong Kong’s shores.

Covid-19 should not distract us from the implications of all this. In the last Cold War, West Berlin was an island of freedom inside the Soviet bloc. Its survival was a beacon of hope for Communism’s subjects in Eastern Europe.

Likewise, Hong Kong has been the West’s beacon in Communist China. And if we remain true to our democratic principles and confront China over Hong Kong, President Xi’s assault on the former British territory could spark a new Cold War.

  • Mark Almond is director of the Crisis Research Institute, Oxford

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