Zack Blumberg: As the west turns on China, Hong Kong’s future hangs in the balance

Wednesday, June 19, 2019 - 10:15am

For many Americans, the U.S. trade war with China has been fought abstractly. Stock prices dropped, and reports have come out explaining how tariffs on Chinese imports will raise the price of everything from iPhones to washing machines. Within America, the conflict hasn’t escalated beyond tariffs and empty threats, despite being, in part, a conflict over global political ideologies. However, 8,100 miles away from Washington, the trade war and America’s shifting approach toward China have absolutely massive implications for the future of the Chinese autonomous territory of Hong Kong. The region has existed in a state of political limbo for the past two decades, and increasing tensions between China and the West could mean the end of Hong Kong as we know it.

Hong Kong, home to over 7.4 million people, is a global business hub with a complicated past. After the first Opium War ended in 1842, the Qing Dynasty was forced to give the island of Hong Kong — at that point little more than a fishing village — to the victorious British. The British gradually expanded their control beyond the original island, and eventually pressured China into signing a 99-year lease (traditionally the longest possible real estate lease) in 1898, which gave the British full control over the territory. Largely politically autonomous and culturally British, the island prospered as an outpost of Liberal democracy.

In the 1980s, with the 99-year lease nearing its end and no specific plan for the future of Hong Kong in place, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping introduced the “one country, two systems” idea. Under Deng’s plan, Hong Kong would become part of China, but would remain administratively autonomous, allowing it to operate its own government with a capitalist economic system, separate from communist China. Hong Kong has operated under this model of governance since the transfer of the territory from Britain to China in 1997.

In the 22 years since Hong Kong became Chinese, the “one country, two systems” model has been largely effective, if not perfect. Hong Kong has continued to prosper financially, and it is ranked as the freest economy in the world. Simultaneously, the government has remained largely protective of citizens’ individual rights. After thousands of protestors took to the streets in 2003, Hong Kong legislators agreed not to pass a bill which would have allowed Hong Kongers found guilty of treason, sedition, secession or subversion against mainland China’s government to be sentenced to life in prison, which would have allowed China greater control over the city-state.

However, things have been changing in recent years. In 2014, Hong Kongers took to the streets to protest again after China announced they would vet candidates for Hong Kong’s 2017 elections, infringing on the region’s freedom. In those 2017 elections, Carrie Lam, a pro-mainland candidate, was elected Chief Executive of Hong Kong despite being unpopular in the city. This is largely thanks to the backing of the mainland Chinese government, which controls many seats on the election committee.

After being elected, Lam talked about “The work of uniting society,” along with other ideas which stand in direct contrast to the “one country, two systems” ideology. Now, another round of protests have arisen after Hong Kong’s government announced their intent to pass a bill allowing certain criminals to be extradited to mainland China for trials. Lam, in a style typical of the mainland Chinese Communist Party, refused to even engage with the protestors on a political level, saying they were acting like spoiled children.

All of China’s recent encroachments on Hong Kong’s sovereignty, combined with a rapid anti-China shift among many Western powers, puts Hong Kong’s future in a very precarious position. Though China consistently prioritizes cultural and societal unity over both human rights and diversity, it used to make sense for China to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy. When China first reclaimed Hong Kong in 1998, it was not the economic superpower it is today. That year, China was seventh in the world in GDP, well behind the United States and a host of its allies: Japan, Germany, Britain, France and Italy.

At a time when the world was still unquestionably dominated by capitalist liberal democracies, having a prosperous capitalist, cosmopolitan outpost was a reputation booster for China, a country known for repressive communism and economically totalitarian five-year plans. By keeping Hong Kong open, China was able to attract global investment to the city, which is today home to the highest concentration of ultra high-net-worth individuals (defined as a net worth over $30 million) in the world. It is also considered an “alpha+” level world city, meaning it is classified as a “city which is a primary node in the global economic network” (this is the second highest ranking, after “alpha++”).

However, China’s geopolitical position today is far different than it was back in 1998, a change that has drastically altered world affairs. By promoting itself as a manufacturing hub for wealthy Western nations, utilizing economic protectionism and occasionally just outright ignoring global trade rules, China has rapidly grown and accumulated wealth. Today, with the second biggest gross domestic product in the world, an ambitious list of global projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative and expanding claims over regions such as the South China Sea, China is clearly a global superpower. China’s rapid ascension means Hong Kong, which once served as a valuable attraction for western powers, is now more of a liberalist thorn in the country’s side. Now, with the U.S. leading a Western charge against China over their illicit trading practices, China has less reason than ever to worry about the west’s perception of liberalism in Hong Kong.

When analyzing the political future of Hong Kong, it is important to consider the geographical realities of the situation. Though Hong Kongers firmly identify as being from Hong Kong, not China, as evidenced by their history of large-scale protest against Chinese encroachment on their rights, and although the city is culturally and economically quite Western, Hong Kong’s defining feature is its location. Ultimately, the city is still an island located just across the river from mainland China. In any dispute over the political future of Hong Kong, China, with its large army, deep resource pool and geographical position will have the upper hand against both the West and Hong Kong itself.

Taking everything into account, it is clear that Deng’s idea for “one country, two systems,” with a Hong Kong largely free of Chinese political influence, will soon be a thing of the past. As China continues to expand and flex its geopolitical strength, how much influence it will exert over Hong Kong is now the relationship’s major issue. China has both grown more powerful and become more repressive in recent years, but Hong Kong is still an economic and political bright spot, even if it is not as crucial as it once was. With that in mind, China will likely act cautiously when approaching Hong Kong, with the goal of limiting its autonomy without causing too great a global uproar. China will likely not touch Hong Kong’s economic freedoms, a major component of what makes the city so attractive, but will work to continuously chip away at the city’s political liberalism, suppressing dissent against mainland China and forcing residents to follow communist policies.

Zack Blumberg can be reached at zblumber@umich.edu.