The US government this week faces a choice. China has decided to impose a new security law on Hong Kong, prohibiting sedition and other supposed crimes that protesters have committed. As often with authoritarian states, it is justified with reference to “preserving law and order”, which has seemingly come under increasing threat in past months. Washington, to show its principled opposition to this new legislation, is pondering the imposition of sanctions on China.
It is not so clear that sanctions will actually help Hong Kong’s democrats; too little consideration is given to how Western expressions of outrage, including sanctions and international condemnation, are actually viewed in Beijing. Such actions are well-meaning, but their consequences are not necessarily positive. This article will frame the issue through the lens of the CCP. That is not to vindicate or defend their position or their actions in Hong Kong. It is simply to infer the most likely response to Western actions.
It is important to remember one point in particular. The CCP, since 1949, has promised to bring two things to China, and its legitimacy in the eyes of many depends upon their delivery. The first is of course prosperity, a goal it has achieved with remarkable success. The second, evoking China’s “century of humiliation” at the hands of Western powers, is to restore greatness to the Middle Kingdom. No longer can China cower before superior-minded Westerners – it must be treated and regarded as a great power.
In this context, Hong Kong is more than just an autonomous province of China. Its “rule of law” and Western-style freedoms are a relic of British control, and thus a constant reminder of Chinese humiliation at the hands of the Royal Navy in the mid-19th century. China has taken back Hong Kong from British occupation; the territory’s system is now just a reminder of former Chinese weakness. The preservation of law and order is surely the most basic prerogative of any state across its legitimate domain. Those, therefore, who criticise the CCP’s actions in Hong Kong are, in effect, questioning its right to control a territory upon which its legitimacy partly rests. The CCP, it is fair to say, is not a fan.
The question of whether American sanctions will be of much help to Hong Kong’s democrats rests on China’s response. In the short term, the sanctions might work. Hong Kong’s economy is built on international finance and therefore extremely vulnerable to certain sanctions. If China prides prosperity, then it will have to back down for now. But do not think for a second that China will happily back down on the imposition of laws it regards as protecting national security. It will find a way to take its revenge at this short-term humiliation. Particularly so in the current context, when willy-nilly trade wars by a certain US President mean American foreign policy is regarded largely as a self-serving attempt to limit Chinese ascendance. Claims to be acting in defence of high-minded principles are likely to fall on deaf ears.
Unfortunately, the long-term picture for Hong Kong’s democrats looks bleak. If this law is shelved, another will soon follow; no success can change the geopolitical fact that a bordering authoritarian state with increasing muscle is bent on enforcing its system on the territory. The best that can be hoped for is that China’s encroachment is slowed. The more bitter China becomes about perceived Western interference, the less likely this becomes. International condemnation of China is unlikely to be constructive.
Sanctions are a good way to feel like something was done to try to help Hong Kong. But while it may help console Westerners concerned by the situation in Hong Kong, Washington must also recognise its down sides. Nobody wishes to be treated like a naughty child; the rage provoked from treating the world’s second most powerful country as one may be worse for Hong Kong than if the West had crossed its arms and done nothing at all.
Image: CDC Global via Flickr