Hong Kong, China, and the USA in the Age of Trump

President Donald Trump is due to meet Chinese president Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Osaka of 19 countries and the E.U. on June 28–29, 2019, focusing on international co-operation for economic growth.  No doubt, the main conversation will be on economic issues.  But a new issue must not be neglected: the remarkable large demonstrations in Hong Kong, an area of 426 square miles with a highly literate population of 7.4 million, in June 2019 against attempts at erosion of the rights of citizens and for protection against mainland China.

The issue is significant for two reasons: it indicates sharply for Western policymakers the contrast between the Chinese dictatorial system and the relative freedom and autonomy of Hong Kong.  Also, the Hong Kong incident may affect negotiations between the U.S. and China on trade and the U.S. presence, since there are an estimated 85,000 U.S. citizens and more than 1,300 U.S. companies in Hong Kong.  The fear is that the H.K. business environment will be damaged. 

It's the story of a very unfortunate Hong Kong chief executive, Carrie Lam, who made a serious blunder and will have years of privilege if not her official position taken away from her.  Lam, a devout Catholic, partly educated at Cambridge University, had been chosen as head of the system in 2017 by a Hong Kong electoral college and officially appointed by China.  Thus, she has a double responsibility and accountability, to both H.K. and China. 

Hong Kong has bilateral extradition treaties with 20 countries, including the U.S.  H.K. executive Lam proposed legislation extending extradition to territories, including China, with which Hong Kong has no formal extradition treaty.  Authority to decide who would be extradited would be the chief executive's.  China had originally been excluded because of the fear that suspects would not receive due process or a fair trial there. Critics of Lam's proposal argued that in fact, it meant that critics of China would be sent to the mainland and almost certainly be tried, convicted, and punished.  It would contradict the Hong Kong Basic Law, Article 4, adopted in 1990 that came into effect July 1997, that promises "to safeguard the rights and freedoms of the residents of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and of other persons in the Region in accordance with the law."

Neither Lam in Hong Kong nor Chinese officials expected the large protest demonstrations, which at one point on June 16, 2019 amounted to two million citizens.  This large number of protesters in the center of H.K. challenged the proposal that provides for extradition from H.K. to mainland China, which they believed was a threat to freedom and the rule of law.  They fought the police, forced parts of H.K. and the schools to close, and got Lam to suspend the proposal indefinitely.  Lam apologized twice for her action but refused to resign from her position.

The demonstrations shone a light on the reality of the Chinese political and legal system, with its long detention of suspects, televised confessions, and few safeguards.  The irony in the whole story is that the problem was caused not by an edict from Beijing or a dictate from President Xi, but from a series of events, and miscalculations, resulting from the murder of a young H.K. woman in Taipei by her H.K. boyfriend, who returned home to escape justice in Taiwan since he could not stand trial under existing H.K. law.  From a little acorn, an oak tree grew.  This injustice of the guilty young man escaping punishment led Carrie Lam, regarded as a tough fighter, to make the proposals for a change in extradition policy of H.K., apparently without consulting Beijing.  It is unclear whether the 66-year-old Xi approved her action in advance.

The proposed bill violates the 1997 agreement that China would allow H.K. to control its legal system for 50 years, a great degree of autonomy in the framework — "one country, two systems."  The relationship is unusual, even peculiar.  After the Opium War, 1839-42, which the Qing rulers lost, H.K. became a British Crown colony from 1841 to 1997.  In 1997, the U.K. transferred the colony to China after guarantees to preserve its freedom. 

The political values of H.K. — freedom and the rule of law, inherited from its years as a British colony — have since been reduced, but the population has resisted assaults on civil liberties and rights from time to time.  To celebrate the 1997 change, street marches have occurred annually, especially large in 2003 and 2004, to prevent undesirable laws.  Protests against introduction of mandatory education in schools were blocked in 2012.  In 2014, China proposed a bill allowing H.K. residents to vote for their leader, the chief executive, but on the condition that the candidate had to be approved by Beijing.  Citizens opposed this as "fake democracy," leading to mass protests and the rejection of the bill by the H.K. legislature.  Chinese leader Xi was obliged to retreat, the first time, on a major issue.

The courageous H.K. protests show that resistance to dictatorship is sometimes successful, forcing rulers to retreat.  The H.K. protestors are concerned that the one country, two states system should be maintained.  The U.S. president and Congress should be similarly concerned.  Donald Trump has remained neutral, but a number of members of Congress, particularly Marco Rubio, are concerned. 

To this point, President Trump has taken no action on the H.K. issue, asserting that the two sides "will work it out."  But he and members of Congress recognize two factors.  One is that the degree of H.K. autonomy from China has diminished; the other is that in trade discussions with Xi, economic and ideological political issues are mingled.  Trump must be aware of the Chinese principles that oppose Western principles: market liberalism and Western constitutional democracy above all.  It is in the interests of U.S. foreign policy and of peace in Asia that H.K. continue to enjoy the autonomy from Chinese control agreed to in 1997.