Chinese officials and media wasted little time in comparing the storming of the US Capitol with the July 2019 occupation of Hong Kong’s legislative council building, or de facto parliament. Beyond any superficial visual similarities, however, the parallels end. Whatever one thinks of the tactics, protesters in Hong Kong were defending democratic freedoms that are being progressively snuffed out on Beijing’s orders. The latest step, the arrest of 53 pro-democracy politicians in the city, came just hours before events in Washington. The pressures on democracy in the US should not distract, nor detract, from what is happening 8,000 miles away.
The arrests ought by now to be no surprise, but are shocking nonetheless. The 53 were not rabble-rousers but moderates. They were detained for involvement in a primary run-off last year to determine which opposition figures would run in Legco elections that were later postponed due to Covid-19. That this is now said to constitute “subversion” highlights the draconian nature of the national security law China imposed last year.
Like the barring of four pro-democracy lawmakers from the Hong Kong body last November — prompting 15 others to resign — the purge betrays nervousness in China’s central government. Though Legco election rules are skewed in favour of pro-Beijing candidates, there was at least a path for the democratic opposition to win. Such a victory could have paralysed lawmaking, pitting an opposition-controlled legislature against a regional government led by a Beijing appointee.
The clampdown undermines the Basic Law, supposed to guarantee Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms after British rule ended in 1997. That mini-constitution said the city should enact laws prohibiting treason, sedition or subversion against the central government. The law also set the “ultimate aim” of selecting the region’s chief executive by universal suffrage. An offer by Beijing to move towards that goal in 2014 was deemed too limited, and triggered protests. Now China’s central government has imposed a national security law by diktat, while any prospect of universal suffrage appears crushed.
The clampdown is further proof of the extent to which the confrontation between Beijing and the west is one of values. Xi Jinping’s China sees itself as engaged in an ideological struggle with what the president has called the “extremely malicious” ideas of liberalism and democracy. While Beijing no longer talks of exporting revolution as in the Mao era, it presents its own one-party system as a superior model.
This poses a dilemma for western democracies. They rely as a source of global growth and a market for their companies — in a way never true with the Soviet Union during the cold war — on a country that sees their system as inimical. This reliance, and China’s sheer size and dynamism, limits their real powers of influence.
That makes it all the more important for the US and EU to join forces on a China strategy. Using what leverage they do possess judiciously — and avoiding appearances of hypocrisy or double standards — is also key. In both respects, the investment accord the EU agreed last week with Beijing looks ill-timed. The European Parliament, which must ratify the deal, cannot ignore China’s rights record.
The US and EU should also make use of their powers to impose “Magnitsky” sanctions on western-held assets and travel of senior Chinese and Hong Kong officials guilty of rights abuses. With thousands of offspring of China’s ruling class attending western universities, for example, that is one area where sanctions could have a real impact.