China drops the mask

Bei­jing makes an all-out as­sault on Hong Kong’s free­dom. The U.S. must re­spond — care­fully.

The Washington Post - - FREE FOR ALL -

THE FULL-SCALE as­sault on free­dom in Hong Kong launched this week by China’s Com­mu­nist Party lead­er­ship could mark a fate­ful turn­ing point in its re­la­tions with the demo­cratic world. Un­til now the regime of Xi Jin­ping has sought to sup­press a protest move­ment in the for­mer Bri­tish colony with tear gas, ar­rests and pros­e­cu­tions of op­po­si­tion lead­ers. Hav­ing failed, Bei­jing on Fri­day un­veiled what amounts to its nu­clear op­tion — a new le­gal frame­work that would al­low main­land se­cu­rity agen­cies to es­tab­lish them­selves in the ter­ri­tory and en­force a ban on “se­ces­sion­ist or sub­ver­sive ac­tiv­ity, the or­ga­niz­ing of ter­ror­ist acts” and “ac­tiv­i­ties of for­eign and ex­ter­nal in­ter­fer­ence.”

As Hong Kong op­po­si­tion lead­ers were quick to point out, the move would ef­fec­tively gut the “one coun­try, two sys­tems” prin­ci­ple that has al­lowed the sur­vival of the rule of law and free­dom of speech and assem­bly in Hong Kong since it re­turned to Chi­nese sovereignt­y in 1997. Though tech­ni­cally a na­tional se­cu­rity law was man­dated by the con­sti­tu­tion Hong Kong then adopted, it will be writ­ten and en­acted by the rub­ber-stamp Na­tional Peo­ple’s Congress in Bei­jing rather than the demo­crat­i­cally elected Hong Kong leg­is­la­ture, which has de­ferred the law since mass protests against it in 2003.

There’s every rea­son to ex­pect that once the leg­is­la­tion is in place this sum­mer, Bei­jing’s thugs will em­ploy it to be­have as they do on the main­land — crush­ing dis­sent by sub­ject­ing those who crit­i­cize the regime to dis­ap­pear­ance, tor­ture and lengthy prison sen­tences. First in line could be those Hong Kong lead­ers, such as Martin Lee and Joshua Wong, who have trav­eled to Wash­ing­ton and other Western cap­i­tals to lobby for pres­sure on Bei­jing to ful­fill its com­mit­ments on Hong Kong, in­clud­ing for univer­sal suf­frage and free elec­tions. Both are al­ready fac­ing pros­e­cu­tion.

Such a crack­down would com­pound what is al­ready a cri­sis in U.S.- Chi­nese re­la­tions and present Wash­ing­ton with some dif­fi­cult choices. It doesn’t help that Pres­i­dent Trump and Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo have been heap­ing abuse on the Xi regime in re­cent weeks as a way of dis­tract­ing from the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s abysmal re­sponse to the covid-19 pan­demic; in fact, the mount­ing U.S. hos­til­ity may have per­suaded Mr. Xi that he had lit­tle to lose by smoth­er­ing Hong Kong.

On Fri­day, Mr. Pom­peo is­sued a blis­ter­ing state­ment say­ing the pend­ing Peo­ple’s Congress ac­tion would “be a death knell” for Hong Kong’s au­ton­omy and would “in­evitably im­pact our as­sess­ment of One

Coun­try, Two Sys­tems and the sta­tus of the ter­ri­tory.” That was an un­mis­tak­able ref­er­ence to the spe­cial trad­ing priv­i­leges Hong Kong has en­joyed un­der U.S. law since 1992. Un­der an amend­ment Congress adopted last year, the State De­part­ment must is­sue a re­port on whether the ter­ri­tory re­mains “suf­fi­ciently au­ton­o­mous” to jus­tify the mea­sures, which in­clude ex­emp­tion from tar­iffs ap­plied to main­land ex­ports.

If a neg­a­tive re­port by the State De­part­ment led to a re­peal of the priv­i­leges, Hong Kong’s econ­omy would be dev­as­tated — as would a lot of U.S. busi­nesses. The es­ti­mated $38 bil­lion in an­nual U.s.-hong Kong trade would be at stake; so would the re­gional head­quar­ters that some 290 U.S. com­pa­nies main­tain in the city. The re­sult could be to speed the conversion of China’s most free city into just an­other pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal, which is not in the U.S. in­ter­est, let alone Hong Kong’s. A more ef­fec­tive re­sponse would look some­thing like that pro­posed by Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD.) and Pa­trick J. Toomey (R-PA.), who would sanc­tion Chi­nese en­ti­ties that com­pro­mise Hong Kong’s au­ton­omy; it would also sanc­tion banks that do busi­ness with those en­ti­ties.

The as­sault on Hong Kong re­quires a ro­bust U.S. re­ac­tion — but one that is care­fully cal­cu­lated and not driven by elec­tion-year dem­a­goguery.

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