Hong Kong: Beijing Exploits the Chaos
While the world's media continues to beset itself upon the pandemic, China is making strides in advancing its very real and very pressing geopolitical objectives. There seems little doubt that with the major Western powers of the world distracted with domestic crises China is seeking to consolidate its grip on outlying political anomalies. Nowhere else is this more pressing as Hong Kong. Since 1997 the former colony ceased to be a territory of the United Kingdom and transferred partial sovereignty to China. The arrangement included the preservation of Hong Kong's special status under a system known as "one country two systems". This arrangement was agreed with the intention it allow a gradual transition of power, though since last year the citizens of Hong Kong have shown increased discomfort at the rate of transition.
Beginning in March 2019, protests erupted at the proposed extradition bill. This would have allowed political prisoners in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China. Given Hong Kong's historical legacy of inheriting the British legal system this was indiscriminately distressing to all those who feared what would happen to the citizens' legal status when under an authoritarian regime. Pro-Beijing lawmakers in the Hong Kong government have gradually been taking control. On the 18th of May pro-democracy politicians were dragged from the Hong Kong legislature by pro-China security guards. The subsequent vote occurred while they were locked out of the chamber, and thus the pro-CCP Starry Lee was elected chairperson. On the streets the police have been using increasingly tight control mechanisms to deal with protestors including tear gas and water cannons.
Latest among the political developments is the proposed security law, set to pass the legislature within the week. Continuing the trend of tightening the freedom available to the people of Hong Kong, the security bill would advance a number of authoritarian policies currently active on the mainland onto Hong Kong. Naturally, many citizens feel this is in breach of the two systems arrangement. It would formally make the following acts illegal. Secession or any push towards it. This would surely make any anti-China sentiment illegal and infringe on free expression. Along with this is subversion: a reframing of any political expression against government forces as illegal. The definition of what terrorism is has also been expanded. Foreign collusion would also be seen as illegal, perhaps indicative of Beijing's intention of shutting out international media and exposure to Hong Kong in the way it does to the mainland.
While it is true to remark that China is seizing on the weakness of Western powers to stand up for Hong Kong at this time one might also consider the possibility that this new assertiveness from China is a diversionary tactic. Being a one-party state Beijing derives its authority to govern from the notion of legitimacy, and there can be little dispute that the disaster of the pandemic dented the legitimacy of the CCP to deliver safety and security to its citizens. Therefore, is it not possible that China's tightening grip on Hong Kong, a serious geopolitical objective or both the CCP and broader Chinese nationalism in general is the redeeming act of the party trying to re-establish its domestic legitimacy? In addition, if this be true then policymakers worldwide will need to pay heed also to the possibility that China seek to advance other objectives in the name of diversionary tactics in other theatres: this could be either Taiwan or the South China Sea. Thinking realistically, just as Russia pursued diversionary warfare in Crimea in 2014, so too might China seek to secure these areas in its own sphere of influence before any Western power can realistically respond. All eyes should remain fixed Eastward, though with the US treading water under a crushing pandemic and leadership contest, the West stands in poor stead to interfere even if it wanted to.
At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a third year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK foreign policy and the defence/aerospace industry.