CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – The year of the ox has begun darkly for the people of Hong Kong. On February 16, nine pro-democracy activists, including 82-year-old Martin Lee, the revered long-time leader of the city’s Democratic Party, went on trial facing charges of illegal assembly.
A week later, the Hong Kong government announced that it would enact a law allowing only “patriots” to serve on district councils, the lowest level of the city’s administrative apparatus, with responsibilities ranging from sanitation to traffic.
This will likely result in the expulsion of democratically elected council members and the disqualification of future candidates deemed disloyal to the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC).
Then, on February 28, in the most sweeping crackdown yet since China imposed a draconian national security law on the former British colony last July, the Hong Kong authorities charged 47 leaders of the city’s pro-democracy movement with “conspiracy to commit subversion” under the law.
Because the law rigs the trial process to ensure conviction, these activists face the prospect of years in prison.
Several considerations may have prompted Chinese President Xi Jinping to escalate the repression in Hong Kong.
For starters, indications that the national security law has succeeded in instilling the rule of fear in the once-defiant city may be encouraging Xi to take advantage of the despotic momentum and try to decapitate Hong Kong’s pro-democracy forces.
Moreover, the West’s measured response to China’s imposition of the national security law – until now limited to diplomatic denunciations and sanctions against a small number of senior Chinese and Hong Kong officials – has not really hurt the government in Beijing.
Chinese leaders also appear to have drawn a line in dealing with new US President Joe Biden: China’s sovereign prerogatives in Hong Kong and the western province of Xinjiang are non-negotiable.
China will do as it pleases in those places, despite Biden’s warning of “repercussions” for human-rights abuses.
But Xi may have underestimated the costs of his actions in Hong Kong. This latest spate of prosecutions of pro-democracy activists, coupled with a lack of goodwill gestures from China to improve ties with the United States, will most likely harden Biden’s stance.
For the time being, the Biden administration wants to avoid a frontal collision with China, because it must first attend to domestic priorities such as tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and fostering economic recovery.
As Biden’s advisers weigh the best approach to China, the CPC’s intensifying crackdown in Hong Kong will undermine advocates of a more nuanced and less confrontational US approach while vindicating those convinced that only a hardline position can modify Chinese behavior.
When the 47 pro-democracy activists are convicted and sentenced to long prison terms, the Biden administration will have no choice but to make China pay.
The narrow window for stabilizing US-China ties, which should serve Chinese interests, will likely close, and bilateral relations could resume their dangerous downward spiral.
At that point, Chinese repression in Hong Kong will make it much easier for Biden to recruit wavering Western democracies as allies. Currently, many European countries are hesitant about becoming full-fledged partners in a new US-led anti-China coalition.
Aside from their extensive commercial interests in China, they worry that an unrestrained US-China geopolitical rivalry could plunge the world into a new cold war, disrupt and fragment the global economy, and doom any hope of combating climate change.
But European leaders ultimately must respond to voters, many of whom care deeply about human rights and are demanding tougher policies toward China.
It will not be long before Germany and France, in particular, find it untenable to maintain a policy that relies on strategic neutrality in the unfolding US-China duel to preserve their economic interests in China.
When European democracies finally join the Biden administration’s nascent anti-China coalition, the credit should go not to America, but to Xi.
Such a coalition could impose painful costs on China for its actions in Hong Kong. True, in the short term, the US and its allies cannot easily undermine Chinese efforts to build Hong Kong into a financial center capable of rivaling New York and London; after all, financial sanctions, such as a ban on investing in companies listed there, would cause chaos in global markets.
But they still have a wide array of other options to squeeze China.
Decoupling China from global technology supply chains currently seems inconceivable, but could become a reality if the coalition agrees to a new arrangement similar to the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls, which choked off Western technology transfers to the Soviet bloc during the Cold War.
Western democracies could also deny Chinese leaders the international prestige they seek by curtailing high-level exchanges and vigorously contesting Chinese influence in multilateral organizations.
And sheltering victims of China’s crackdown in Hong Kong would be both a humanitarian gesture and a forceful rebuke of Chinese policy.
Chinese leaders are most likely already aware of these consequences as they weigh their options in Hong Kong. They have settled on an ultra-hardline course in the belief that its costs are bearable; arguably, their gambit has paid off so far.
But, by throwing down the gauntlet to a new US administration and its allies, China may be overplaying its hand.
Minxin Pei is Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.