China’s grip over Hong Kong poses an immediate challenge for Biden

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“We had to,” Claudia Mo, one of the opposition politicians, told the BBC. “We owe a display of solidarity with our colleagues who were ousted. We need to protest against what could be the ultimate Beijing crackdown on Hong Kong — to silence the last bit of dissent in the city.”

The move is an extension of the crackdown set in motion this summer when Beijing imposed a new national security law on Hong Kong. Under its edicts, dissent has been chilled, protesters arrested and local legislators punished for supporting or participating in the pro-democracy movement. The ousting of these four lawmakers and the departure of their allies, my colleagues wrote, “represented a decisive blow that virtually eliminates opposition in the legislature for the first time since Hong Kong’s handover from Britain in 1997.”

“This move makes it clear that dictatorship has descended onto Hong Kong and that [the] Chinese Communist Party can eradicate all opposing voices in the legislature,” Fernando Cheung, one of the lawmakers, told reporters. “There’s no more separation of powers, no more ‘one country, two systems,’ and therefore no more Hong Kong as we know it.”

Chinese state media billed the latest maneuvers as a “long overdue” step toward “the return of peace and prosperity” in Hong Kong, which was paralyzed by mass protests last year. But it confirmed to China’s critics abroad how irreconcilable Beijing’s plans for the former British colony may be with Western visions of the city as a liberal Asian metropolis.

A statement from the European Union declared the lawmakers’ ousting a “severe blow to political pluralism” in Hong Kong. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described it as “a clear breach” of a joint Sino-British declaration on Hong Kong’s political status and future. White House national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien said in a statement that China was “expanding one party dictatorship in Hong Kong.”

Yet none of this censure is likely to make a jot of difference. “The sweeping changes in the territory indicate that President Xi Jinping really does believe China is engaged in a bitter ideological struggle with the ‘extremely malicious’, ‘western’ ideas of liberalism and democracy,” wrote Jamil Anderlini of the Financial Times. “For his party it makes sense to crush the things former colonists think made Hong Kong so successful.”

My colleagues reported that the timing of the move may be no coincidence, and that it reflected “Beijing’s aim to consolidate its position while much of the world is distracted by the coronavirus pandemic, and in the United States by [President] Trump’s refusal to concede defeat to [President-elect Joe] Biden.”

But it may compel Biden to take an even tougher line than his predecessor. On the campaign trail, Biden blasted Xi as a “thug” and criticized Trump for his personal rapport with the Chinese leader. China has yet to formally congratulate Biden on his election victory. A Biden administration is expected to be more vocal about human rights in China than the Trump administration has been. The latest move in Hong Kong adds more fuel to the fire.

“With this decision, China shows that it doesn’t care about the West, about the U.S.,” Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor in Hong Kong Baptist University’s government and international studies department, told Bloomberg News. “It’s going to be very hard for Biden to relax the U.S. policy on China and Hong Kong. How can you relax the sanctions?”

On other fronts, Biden has already signaled his willingness to confront China. In a phone call with Japanese counterparts this week, Biden reportedly committed the United States to the defense of the Senkaku Islands, a rocky archipelago under Japanese control that is claimed by Beijing. “The early assurance is a departure from President Donald Trump, who was seeking a review of the alliance during the presidential campaign four years ago,” noted Nikkei Asia.

Though Trump and his allies billed themselves as the first U.S. administration to take the threat posed by China seriously, onlookers in Asia contend that a Biden administration may provide a welcome return to more stable diplomacy. “Trump adopted a very aggressive China policy … basically trying to push China on every front,” Adam Ni, director of the Australia-based China Policy Center, told AFP. “With Biden, I think we’ll see a more considered approach that’s smarter, that’s more targeted … that doesn’t focus on aggression alone, but considers long-term competition.”

“It’s a great thing that we don’t have this highly uncertain and unpredictable president anymore, after January next year,” Narushige Michishita, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, told my colleagues.

For Hong Kong, though, relief is not on the way. Biden’s aides stress that the president-elect’s main priorities will be domestic, focused on reckoning with the pandemic and reconciling the heated political divisions in the United States. “Our own democracy, when it is weak, when it looks like it is in disarray … is arguably good for China,” Biden adviser Antony Blinken said at a think tank event earlier this year. “Because our model looks less attractive than it otherwise would.”

“The most significant actions Biden could take on China in his first 100 days would not relate directly to China,” Brookings Institution fellow Ryan Hass, who served in the Obama White House, told Politico’s David Wertime. “Restoring American leadership in tackling global challenges, repairing relationships with allies and partners, countering the spread of Covid-19 at home and abroad, reviving an economy slammed by the pandemic — any of these steps would disprove Beijing’s belief that America has lost its capacity for self-correction.”



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