China is taking advantage of the world's preoccupation with COVID-19

China is taking advantage of the world's preoccupation with COVID-19
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In recent days, China has moved to assert new and dangerous controls over the semi-autonomous territories of Hong Kong and Macau. China announced sweeping new measures that violate its international commitments and pose a grave threat to human rights and political freedoms, after more than two decades of limited self-governance in the territories. Why should it matter to Americans?

In 1997, Britain relinquished sovereignty over Hong Kong, returning it to China. A similar deal with Portugal in 1999 returned the much smaller Macau to Beijing’s authority. In both cases, China signed treaties with the former colonial powers, pledging to allow significant autonomy in what were called special autonomous regions (SAR). China committed to what was termed “one country, two systems” for 50 years after the handover — until 2047 in Hong Kong; 2049 in Macau.

And the SARs have enjoyed a measure of self-government and much broader human rights and political freedoms than their Chinese brethren. While closely tied to China, their economies operate independently, using their currencies and negotiating their trade deals. The outside world recognizes and treats them differently on a host of matters. 

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Citizens carry SARs, not Chinese, passports, and international border controls between Hong Kong and the mainland. While self-censorship is a persistent problem, the media has operated with substantial freedom and the internet is beyond the control of China’s Great Firewall. Religious freedom, the right to assemble and protest, and the power of an independent judiciary have been largely respected.

The new measures will strip away any semblance of one country, two systems, replacing limited democracy and autonomy with tighter control from the Communist Party. Since 1997, China has sought to restrict the ability of Hong Kong to govern itself and to circumscribe guarantees for freedom of speech and assembly, initially with some subtlety. 

Those efforts have accelerated since Xi Jinping rose to power in 2012. Beijing’s 2019 initiative to force Hong Kong to extradite criminal suspects to the mainland led to months of protests in Hong Kong, which were met with a forceful response from the SAR police.

The arrival of the coronavirus largely silenced the demonstrations in a way the authorities couldn’t. And China is now taking advantage of the world’s preoccupation with COVID-19 to violate its treaty commitments and assert control. 

Citing secession, foreign (meaning American) influence, the threat of terrorism, and a lack of obedience to the central authorities in Beijing, the Communist Party is in the process of overriding the Basic Laws. These constitutions govern Hong Kong and Macau.

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Given our fraught relationship with China, the United States has only limited tools to respond. China could always impose its full authority on the SARs. Until now, it has calculated that the economic and political costs of doing so were too high.

But now, Beijing has thrown out the rulebook. The National People’s Congress, China’s powerless legislature rubber-stamped the party’s directive on May 28. 

Americans should be concerned for two reasons. First, by enacting these new security laws, China is reneging on its international commitments. While the treaties were signed by the United Kingdom and Portugal, and not by the United States, this should serve as a wake-up call that China’s signature on any commitment or treaty is now effectively worthless. China, of course, has long ignored its international commitments to human rights. This action takes its cynical attitude toward international laws to new levels. The fiction of normal relations with Xi’s China is shattering.

And Americans should also care about extinguishing the human rights of millions of people. While Hong Kong and Macau have never enjoyed the level of freedom we do, they have lived far more freely than mainland Chinese. China’s creeping authoritarianism in the two SARs has now ended, replaced by an assertive power grab. Democracy and human rights should always be at the center of American foreign policy and every American must be concerned when we see human rights being taken away by force. 

And U.S. law will likely mean China’s actions will further inflame the already broken relationship. The 2019 Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act predicates Hong Kong’s preferential status in trade and other relations on an annual report by the State Department that Beijing continues to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy. On May 27, the State Department announced Hong Kong was no longer autonomous; the White House is considering possible responses.

China’s actions should come as no surprise — they speak to the character of Xi Jinping’s regime. But this step should serve as a reminder that those expressing admiration for Xi and China’s communist authorities have been deluding themselves.

Lindsay Lloyd is the Bradford M. Freeman Director of the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute.