This kind of brutal repression by the CCP has taken place in the mainland for many years now. Many have been jailed without a fair court hearing. Some have even been tortured into obedience. In fact, Chinese activists are so frequently harassed by the police that the euphemism for it—“to be invited by the police for tea”—is now well known by the Chinese public.
Under the new laws that criminalize dissent, Hong Kong-based activists and the non-profit organizations that have supported the Chinese labor movement are now in the same boat as mainland dissidents. For Hongkongers, this means their struggle is now intimately tied with those of mainland China. Thus, so is their liberation.
Beijing’s New Approach to Foreign Policy
Xi’s imposition of the law is a sign of the regime’s increasing willingness to project its power, regardless of opposition from US empire. In 1990, against the backdrop of the US’ unparalleled global might, China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping set the tone of China’s attitude towards foreign policy: “Keep a low profile, hide your strengths, and bide your time.” As he opened China to a globalizing world that was hungry for cheap labor, he knew that the only way for China’s economy to prosper was for it to appear unthreatening to other global powers.
Beijing’s enactment of the national security laws marks a decisive departure from Deng’s ethos of hide and bide. Indeed, with the world watching over Hong Kong’s movement, President Xi Jinping was fully aware of the international attention that such laws would attract but proceeded to forcefully push them through anyway. As such, the new laws are not just about quelling dissent in Hong Kong. Rather, they represent a shift in Beijing’s confidence and a declaration that—after all these years—China has indeed bided its time.
In the past, Chinese leaders never brazenly encroached on Hong Kong’s autonomy because they knew that the city was the primary connection between China and global capital, and that its stability was critical for the Chinese economy. In the 80s under his directive to open and reform, Deng anticipated the economic value that Hong Kong would bring to the mainland. So, when it came to negotiating the terms of Hong Kong’s return to China, he vouched for the territory to retain its capitalist system, hence creating the One Country, Two Systems agreement. Hong Kong’s destiny as China’s door to global capital was set.
Today, China keeps several doors to global capital open. Chinese cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen have risen into economic hubs in their own right, complete with their own stock exchanges. The tech industry has swollen into a force that allows the Chinese consumer to almost entirely bypass traditional financial institutions; the advent of mobile payments have by and large made traditional banking obsolete, displacing Hong Kong’s role as a financial hub.
Xi’s ambitious global infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative, has spun a web of debt relations across the world in which Chinese firms have been extracting raw materials and exploiting inexpensive labor in association with local capitalists under a revived “Silk Road” model. Meanwhile, the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area (GBA) megapolitan program is set to integrate no less than 11 cities in the Pearl River Delta into a tech and innovation conglomerate to rival Silicon Valley.
Where Hong Kong once represented over 25% of the Chinese economy, that number has come down to barely 3% in 2020. These advances in China mean that Hong Kong’s value as a conduit of global capital has become much less exceptional.
In this context, the passage of the laws—despite the US Senate’s immediate response to pass a bill to sanction China—is an indication of Xi’s confidence in China’s international position. Knowing that the laws could instigate an exodus of Hong Kong-based American companies (of which there are thousands) and result in economic backlash from the US, Xi is ready to sacrifice Hong Kong’s economic usefulness if it means getting his way politically. So far, foreign companies and investment have not left the city and Hong Kong’s market seems to be back on the rise.
While it’s still too early to tell what the mid-to-long term economic effects will be, Xi’s bet seems to be holding out. China has swiftly recovered from the COVID-19 outbreak while the US continues to mishandle the crisis, which has caused the international community to lose confidence in US leadership. Xi knows that, at least for now, the cards are stacked in his favor.
Cold War Redux
Just as Beijing has justified its aggressive stance toward the US under the banner of anti-imperialism, we can expect that Washington will reframe China’s rise as a question of freedom versus authoritarianism, especially as domestic failures in the US produce the need to scapegoat China. International foreign policy has already splintered along the fault lines of the Cold War redux, where countries in opposition to the laws face off against those that have rallied around China’s supposed position of anti-Western imperialism. This latest installment of a protracted tit-for-tat battle has only dialed up the stakes of inter-imperial rivalry.
That the clash of strongman politics between the US and China merely greases the wheels of an increasingly bifurcated world will go overlooked in the sordid game of inter-imperial competition. The political right will buy into this; conservatives have and will come down hard on Hong Kong’s national security laws using the righteous rhetoric of human rights advocacy and will portray China’s rise as an existential threat to American society.
Many on the left will counter this by praising the CCP for championing socialism while turning a blind eye to the fact that it actually facilitates capitalism with authoritarian characteristics. In fact, some quarters of the left have decried Hongkongers’ resistance to the new laws as more attempts to restore the territory’s capitalist status quo and harken back to colonial governance. Some have even embraced the laws as the Chinese state’s move toward decolonization.