The National Security Law foisted upon Hong Kong had many appalling features that were immediately clear, but questions remained about the vigour with which China would use them. However, the arrest of Apple Daily owner Jimmy Lai, following the sacking of professor Benny Tai, the mass arrest of activists and politicians such as Nathan Wong and Agnes Chow, and the disqualification of pro-democracy politicians from elections, means there is no doubt. Hong Kong has fallen.
But given the sweeping powers of the National Security Law, how far can China go? Article 38 of National Security Law states:
“This Law shall apply to offences under this Law committed against the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region from outside the Region by a person who is not a permanent resident of the Region.”
This gives the Hong Kong security forces (or the Chinese government, which now clearly directs them) sweeping powers to charge anyone in any country, should they in any shape or form support democracy in Hong Kong. You can’t tweet, write, research, publish, make a phone call, provide funds, or be an NGO or investigative journalist. The section on “subversion” defines it as “overthrowing or undermining the basic system of the People’s Republic of China” and “seriously interfering in, disrupting, or undermining the performance of duties and functions” of the mainland and Hong Kong governments. If they don’t like it, you can be charged. It’s that brutally simple.
Would Xi Jinping’s government use this power judiciously (Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam having claimed that the security law would only be used against “an extremely small minority of illegal and criminal acts”)? Or would we see the aggression to which we have become accustomed under China’s “wolf diplomacy”? If you’ve been paying attention to China’s bullying of foreign businesses, nations and individuals over the past few years – well, you’ll know the answer already.
It’s full-steam ahead. Last week it emerged that China is pursuing foreign citizens outside its borders. Six overseas pro-democracy activists, including a US citizen, a pastor and a community organiser, Samuel Chu, have arrest warrants for allegedly inciting secession and collusion with foreign forces. Chu told Voice Of America: “they are not going to scare me into hiding and they’re not going to erase me from being able to speak out.”
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These extraterritorial charges may be an attempt to deter overseas individuals or organisations from campaigning for Hong Kong democracy – as a marker of a new red line, an attempt to set a new status quo where civil society has been destroyed, in the familiar playbook of communist rule. Mao Zedong believed in and acted on Sun Tzu’s aphorism, “Kill one to frighten ten thousand”. So perhaps Xi Jinping is acting bellicose so as to limit further power plays. It’s like an abusive relationship: “If you only did what I said, then I wouldn’t get angry.”
But China, I think, underestimates the challenge it is provoking. Nations are not people. They have alliances and diplomacy and common cultures. Sovereignty matters. To have this infringed because of Chinese authoritarianism transgresses the basic principles of international relations developed from the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, including the inviolability of borders and non-interference in domestic affairs. Liberal interventionism, as espoused by Tony Blair, may have transgressed these principles, but that concept died in the killing fields of Iraq. China is saying it is powerful enough to enforce its will against any country no matter what, regardless of international borders.
This is an astonishingly bold move. It is even bolder than the neoconservative foreign policy of George W Bush, under which unilateral action was justified by mere dint of the American position as the sole superpower, as it then was. Bush misunderstood leadership as much as Xi Jinping’s government has. Power and leadership depend on example-setting and cultural attractiveness (“soft power”) as much as military and economic prowess (“hard power”). The US was the world’s sole superpower because people believed in its virtues. Casting these aside to enforce its will militarily was utter folly.
China has been following a similar path, but from a weaker position. The striking thing has been the extent to which China believes that it can now be a rule-maker rather than rule-taker. It feels that it has now stood up, and that others should bend to its will. But it does so from a far less powerful position than the US.
Its per capita GDP is still below that of Romania and Malaysia. Its working population is now in decline, thanks to the demographic timebomb of the one-child policy. It has territorial disputes with many of its neighbours and political disputes with numerous Western nations, and its diplomacy is appalling. Its economy remains closed from competition in many sectors and the efforts of its businesses to go international have often been poor. Its image is far weaker than that of the US, even under Donald Trump, but the only way it can think to improve it is through threats and coercion, through bribery and bullying. The beatings will continue until morale improves.
Xi Jinping, however, believes that Western weakness means this is the time when China can act, a period of historic opportunity (a phrase with deeply sinister connotations in Asia). This is why there has been a dash for pre-eminence. But the foundations of this strategy are extremely shaky and based on a complete misapprehension of leadership. Xi has thus stirred up opposition, from Canada to India to New Zealand, while occasional grumbles can be heard from Chinese officials wanting a more circumspect diplomatic approach. China’s thuggishness, mendacity and authoritarianism may have succeeded in the short-term, but at the expense of its long-term success.