19.05.2020 Author: Vladimir Terehov

On the Situation in Hong Kong as US-China Relations Worsen

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On the card table where modern world politics are played, the state of affairs in Hong Kong remains a barometer which can provide a rough idea of the current trends in relations between the United States and China. Both of these superpowers play a major role in shaping the bigger global picture of today’s game.

That is why NEO has been monitoring how the situation has been developing in the Hong Kong on a fairly regular basis, or the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (HKSAR) as it has officially been known since the former British colony became a part of the PRC in 1997. For almost an entire year now, the HKSAR has been gripped by yet another wave of turbulence, which was last discussed after the local District Council elections were held on November 24, 2019 for all 18 of Hong Kong’s District Councils.

Last year’s riots in Hong Kong coincided with another round of bilateral talks between the United States and China to address their trade and economic issues. Both sides were pushing for the talks to end on a positive note, but of course they each had their own definition of a positive outcome.

China is greatly committed to maintaining relations with the U.S. as one of its main foreign trading partners, and ultimately had to acknowledge the grievances voiced by the American side, which stem from the undeniable fact that Beijing has long been earning hundreds of billions of dollars on an annual basis off its trade with the United States.

It was this commitment that tied Beijing’s hands, preventing China from severely cracking down on the Hong Kong protesters, who acted provocatively in open defiance of Beijing on the streets of Hong Kong. From the looks of it, the protesters strangely seem to have gotten away with blue murder or received a purely symbolic punishment.

The situation in the city has stabilized after a coalition of political pro-democratic parties termed “pan-democratic” in Beijing won last year’s elections. They received 85% of the votes from those who turned out to go to the polls. In other words, the crowds from the streets were the force that took to the polls in local communities, who have their own grievances with the Chinese Central Government, although they did not condone the havoc wreaked in their own city by the particularly violent protesters.

You would think that the Hong Kong factor would play much less of a role in bilateral relations between the US and PRC after they signed the trade deal known as the “Phase 1” agreement on January 15 this year following 18 months of negotiations on the aforementioned trade issues. In other words, one would expect the situation on the city’s streets to be fairly calm, when the routine political process stays within the walls of the Legislative Assembly of the HKSAR and the local District Councils and does not spill out onto the streets.

However, almost immediately after the “Phase 1” trade deal was signed, the global coronavirus pandemic came almost out of nowhere, which is having catastrophic consequences in the United States of all places. It is also probably the country where it has been most politicized, mainly due to the upcoming elections in November, when Americans will elect their president for the next term along with a completely new House of Representatives, and a third of the Senate will be contested.

Although Donald Trump’s chances of being re-elected as president and the success of the Republican Party in the Congress elections looked fairly realistic in February this year, the question of who was to blame inevitably arose as the situation with both the coronavirus and the country’s economy deteriorated. On May 8, the level of unemployed or underemployed in the United States had already hit 22.8%, almost as low as the 25% recorded at the time of the Great Depression in 1933.

The average American voter is not likely to go to the trouble of getting to the bottom of this problem and dig up the detailed root causes, including shortcomings that have long existed in the national healthcare system (i.e. they were there before Donald Trump), and the President’s use of the agencies at his disposal to mislead people about how prepared the country was for natural disasters such as epidemics. As approval ratings fall, the ruling Republican party and government is tempted to point to the finger overseas and blame an external factor for causing the outbreak.

America’s main geopolitical rival fit this description. The anti-Chinese propaganda campaign quickly gained momentum in the media and led to concrete financial claims being made for “compensation for various damages” from Beijing. This was followed by thinly veiled threats that the US could cancel debt obligations to China, which America owes more than 1 trillion dollars.

US-China relations have taken another nosedive, and have now hit an all-time low. The difference is that this time Beijing has made it clear that it does not intend to show the same level of restraint it did during the negotiations to secure the “Phase 1” trade deal. The Global Times, a semi-official government publication under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper, discussed whether China is likely to “dump” its US Treasury holdings, or comply with the terms of the “Phase 1” trade deal and prepare for the “Phase 2” negotiations.

It is certainly no coincidence that when the editor of the Global Times published a brief note around the same time (May 8) on the need to increase China’s nuclear arsenal to 1000 warheads “in a relatively short time”, including warheads to be carried on mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

There was a place for Hong Kong on the list of symbolic gestures made to Washington. On April 18, 15 Hong Kong riot leaders who organized and participated in “illegal assembly” on the streets in protests that took place on August 18, October 1 and October 20 last year were detained and later released on bail. In response to the anti-Chinese campaign which immediately took hold in the Western media, the Chinese Foreign Ministry released a statement the next day, saying that “their rhetoric revealed their complicity with rioters who have created chaos in the city”.

On May 6, the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council gave the “black shirts” a stern warning not to appear on the city’s streets, addressed to the particularly violent protesters who dress in black.

Yet a new cause for a very cautious optimism about relations between the two leading world powers can just about be made out (although it is difficult to remember how many of these there have already been). This glimmer of hope was in the form of a telephone call made on May 8 between the China’s Vice-Premier Liu He, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

The last time American and Chinese officials at such a senior level had been in contact was when the “Phase 1” trade deal was signed, and both sides expressed a desire to “make the agreement a success”. For this specific purpose, the decision was taken to set up a special intergovernmental body.

It is worth briefly touching on the advantages Russia could have if tensions between the US and China worsen, which are the subject of frequent debate in the country. To draw on an analogy, it would be like some smart swamp creature hoping that a fight between the two biggest hippopotami will help them survive with less predators around, as they all struggle for a shrinking space in a swamp that is drying up. Sooner or later, the smart guy will be accidentally get crushed, without having even been noticed by the brawling creatures themselves. It would be wiser take time during one of the breaks between rounds to try to convince the hippopotami that both of them will still have something useful to bring to the current geopolitical ecosystem. If they continue to fight to the bloody end, it will destroy the entire ecosystem (to put it politely). That includes all of its inhabitants, including yourselves.

Likewise, Hong Kong will only be able to continue to benefit from its current “special” status within China if China normalizes its relations with the United States. In other words, the attempts made by those young rioters who are fighting for some sort of “rights” to encourage the deterioration of relations between China and the US are in direct contradiction to the interests of the vast majority of the population in Hong Kong.

The main political forces in the HKSAR are beginning to gain a greater understanding of this situation, who do not see any alternatives to maintaining a decent level of cooperation with the mainland in order to find a way out of the difficult situation the city has found itself in due to a number of reasons, and last year’s riots are certainly somewhere on the top of the list.

Whatever the case, the situation in Hong Kong still serves as a barometer and reflects relations between the world’s two leading powers. This is also why the situation there needs to be closely monitored.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific Region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”

 

 


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