Framed by colossal buildings and neck-craning skyscrapers, the small masked citizens appear just as towering and immovable as they raise their fists and signs in the air. From above, thousands of protesters seem to move as a single entity. Upon closer inspection, however, this inspirational scene becomes disorienting and dystopian.
The reason for this sudden shift? All the signs are blank.
The Chinese government is notorious for its censorship and crackdowns. From blacking out social media platforms on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre to taking down stories related to coronavirus, Chinese citizens have grown accustomed to officials restricting their speech. However, some parts of China have traditionally enjoyed more liberties.
Hong Kong, officially known as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, is one such area. Returned to Chinese control in 1997 after centuries of British colonial rule, Hong Kong was meant to operate with a different system from mainland China. This structure, known as “One Country, Two Systems,” hinges on Hong Kong existing as a Chinese territory without subscribing to the Chinese government’s strict laws or its economic principles.
This differentiated treatment began after the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration between China and the U.K. in 1984. This document outlined that China could rule Hong Kong as long as the region maintained a capitalist economy and basic rights to speech and assembly until the year 2047. While there has never been complete peace in the region, Hong Kong was often afforded freedoms that other Chinese citizens never dreamt of having.
That is, until 11:00 p.m. on Tuesday, June 30, when Chinese officials implemented a stringent national security law. One hour before the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s acquisition, the Chinese government enacted 66 articles criminalizing acts of secession, terrorism, and subversion. Bypassing Hong Kong’s legislative council, these articles vaguely prohibit actions such as possessing a Hong Kong independence flag, damaging government buildings, or working with foreign human rights groups.
Under this new law, any protesters carrying signs supporting Hong Kong independence or defacing property with pro-democracy slogans are subject to arrest by mainland authorities. Although the wording of the legislation appears to be in good faith, over 370 protesters have already been arrested. This unrest even seems to have spilled over into mainland China.
“I think Hong Kong did something [to the Mainland],” said Chaewon Yang, a current Chinese resident and incoming student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in an interview with The Politic. “In Shanghai, they have protests at the president’s residence—there are some [protests] in every part of China, little by little.”
While this law may come as a shock to Hong Kong and Chinese citizens, it should not have caught the international community, especially the U.K., by surprise. One of the main conditions of Hong Kong’s constitution, which was established by the 1984 agreement, was the creation of a Hong Kong-sponsored security law. With added security measures, Hong Kong’s legislature could ensure order and prevent government coups. However, the last time Hong Kong’s elected council attempted to pass such legislation mass protests and demonstrations ensued. The mainland Chinese government’s newfound boldness can be largely attributed to the current pandemic and social distancing guidelines.
“Coronavirus, to some extent, has helped [the Chinese government]. Back in October, I could barely use the subway because there were protests all the time. Now the protests have stopped, at least for a while, so China was like, ‘okay, we need to pass this now,’” said Melissa Adams ‘24, a current Hong Kong resident, in an interview with The Politic. “They don’t want to look like they’re losing control, so this is a good time for them to take action.”
Despite the breach of its original agreement, the U.K. itself has retaliated against China’s law. Joining Australia, the country has offered visa rights that can extend into a path to citizenship for Hong Kong residents. Notably absent from the list of countries expressly denouncing the Chinese security law is the United States.
“I think [the law] shows China seizing on the opportunity of America’s state of political chaos and disoriented foreign policy,” said Tina Yong, a former Chinese resident, in an email correspondence with The Politic. “The [Chinese] government now has far more room to push its agenda of fully integrating the Mainland and Hong Kong, amongst other goals, given the U.S.’s increasingly dysfunctional approach to foreign policy.”
As a self-described champion of democracy, the United States normally condemns human rights violations in the world. However, under the Trump administration’s “America First” policy this intervention has been significantly scaled back.
Despite the United States’ pre-existing involvement in the region, such as passing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and exporting defense equipment to Hong Kong, interference from the global superpower would not be enough to stabilize the territory. Right now, the Chinese government is utilizing the media to vilify and disparage Hong Kong’s protests—U.S. intervention would simply strengthen their argument.
“The Chinese government uses the United States’ media to twist the protests to appear paid off by the West,” said Adams. “Because of the proliferation of Chinese propaganda, I don’t think the situation would necessarily improve if the U.S. got involved.”
Although protests for freedom have defined Hong Kong’s past, the now-concrete threat of Chinese imprisonment has imposed a chilling effect that may silence the nation’s future. Unless China scales back its control and minimizes their criminal sentences, this new law will likely be the end of Hong Kong’s self-determination.
While China’s national security law intended to suppress Hong Kong, it indirectly affected the rest of the world as well.
Huawei, a Chinese multinational technology company, has inserted itself into the tech landscape of many major countries. Boasting $11 billion USD lent to American companies and a 3rd place ranking in the U.K. smartphone market, the tech giant is party to most global advancement in 5G internet. However, they are involuntarily also accomplices to the Chinese government’s actions against Hong Kong.
“Because Huawei has a lot of its revenue coming from mainland China, it’s very difficult for it to be separated from operations in China,” said Dennis Wang, Amazon bestselling author of Reigning the Future: AI, 5G, Huawei, and the Next 30 Years of the US-China Rivalry, in an interview with The Politic. “This makes it a much bigger target for being scapegoated in the context of deteriorating relations between China and other countries…for Huawei, I think it’s more of a political issue completely.”
As the second largest smartphone vendor in the world, Huawei has a significant stake in international markets. The geopolitical implications of Huawei’s success, including China’s status as a rapidly growing superpower, intimidate other countries. Now that China is attempting to exercise power over Hong Kong, further angering other countries, Huawei’s future in the U.S. and the U.K. is uncertain.
Donald J. Morrissey, vice president of congressional, state, and local government affairs at Huawei U.S., said in an interview with The Politic that, “those issues are geopolitical, but they cascade down in terms of the tensions. It’s an indirect effect, but in a situation where you have people [in the U.S.] who are looking for additional reasons to have a negative view, it does affect us.”
Endeavors to decrease Huawei’s involvement are not new. Due to privacy concerns, the United States has tried to blacklist the company and the U.K. has attempted to limit their market share—but the current Hong Kong situation makes every maneuver around the company more delicate for everyone. China’s new security law may further embolden decisions to completely remove Huawei from the U.S. and the U.K.—and, as always, Hong Kong comes out the loser.
In 1992, Hong Kong was granted special economic privileges with the United States. Under this agreement, the territory was to be treated separately from the mainland in economic and trade matters. During the height of the US-China trade war, this law allowed Hong Kong to remain immune to U.S. tariffs and economic strife with the mainland.
Since China’s new law allows the mainland to exert more power over Hong Kong, the U.S. has become doubtful that the region should actually be considered as separate from mainland China. In fact, the U.S. has begun to repeal these exemptions, leaving Hong Kong even more susceptible to increasingly rocky U.S.-China relations. As a result, the United States’ potential decision to eliminate Huawei’s presence and harm China’s economy creates more insecurity in Hong Kong than ever before.
“Given what’s transpired [in the mainland] in terms of the trade war and the actions previously taken by the U.S. government, I don’t know how much more you can pile on,” said Morrissey. “As far as we can, we engage with the U.S. government to move the issue into one of a mutual interest discussion…but geopolitics is getting in the middle of that.”
Especially since the security law is extraterritorial in scope, meaning that international groups, non-permanent residents, or foreign media outlets could face punishment, countries are scrambling to limit their entanglements with China as much as possible. To accomplish this, they want to hit China where it hurts: their businesses.
“[Huawei] is a big target for political actions towards Chinese companies,” said Wang. “Frankly, I think it’s been very politicized—so much so that things happening in Hong Kong are going to influence the company.”
While the rest of the world wants to avoid becoming collateral damage in China’s dispute with Hong Kong, disorganized reactions from particular countries make a bad situation worse. For example, since the United States began sanctioning Huawei, the U.K. sensed a threat to their internet security without the U.S’s support of the company. To steer clear of the security risks associated with U.S. sanctions on Huawei, the U.K. will likely remove Huawei entirely, harming their own advancements in 5G internet. Now that both countries are retaliating against China separately, they face the tangential impacts of each other’s actions instead of just China’s.
The domino effect is clear: if the U.K. and the U.S. use the security law as an added reason to phase out Huawei, then Hong Kong, now without special U.S. economic exemptions, faces the financial strain of the company’s minimization. As a consequence, all the other countries suffer economically due to the loss of Huawei’s stake in their tech sectors.
The catch? Hong Kong is the only region that also has to deal with encroachment from an authoritarian government.
Though the national security law only directly affects Hong Kong citizens, the undeniable risk to global economic stability remains on the horizon. If the international community does not orchestrate a careful response, such as expressly supporting protesters or collectively sanctioning government officials, disaster is likely to ensue for everyone involved. Before long, Hong Kong’s blank signs may evolve into blank stares from the rest of the world as they turn to focus on solely domestic issues.