Philip Calvert is a senior research associate at the University of Victoria’s Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives and a senior fellow at the China Institute at the University of Alberta. He spent 10 years as a Canadian diplomat in Beijing, three years as director-general for North Asia at Global Affairs Canada and, most recently, four years as Canada’s ambassador to Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
The passing of a national security law for Hong Kong this week in the National People’s Congress of China is a turning point in Beijing’s relations with the world. This legislation, which becomes part of the Basic Law governing Hong Kong’s status as a Special Administrative Region of China, puts in place broad security measures that restrict long-standing freedoms. It guts the city’s autonomy, violates their 1984 treaty with Britain on Hong Kong’s handover to China and undermines the principle of “one country, two systems,” which Deng Xiaoping saw as the only avenue to peaceful unification. This is a historic test of resolve that warrants a vigorous and concrete response, including from Canada.
This move is a reflection not so much of China’s strength but of how insecure its leadership is about the country’s state of affairs. The continued legitimacy of Chinese Communist Party rule has long depended on economic growth and stability. COVID-19 has had a serious impact on an economy whose growth rates, for structural and demographic reasons, were already declining. The collapse of exports, heavy indebtedness and unemployment all create a potent combination in a population in which many are already grumbling about Beijing’s early failures in handling the coronavirus. A global inquiry into the outbreak could further feed this discontent.
However, China’s leaders know that nationalism is a powerful tool that can be effectively deployed to deal with domestic discontent. The Chinese Communist Party no longer has an ideology to guide it; its communism is an empty husk, surrounded by layers of verbiage that serve the interests of whichever faction is in charge of the country. The CCP only has nationalism as a unifying force, and under Xi Jinping it has become a particularly ugly variety that drives an expansionist policy internationally and increased repression of non-Han minorities – especially Uyghurs – domestically. To Mr. Xi, whose hard-line views on Hong Kong were known before he became President, crushing democracy protesters in the former colony is an assertion of China’s primacy.
China’s actions send an ominous message at a time when countries around the world are distracted by the pandemic and other troubles; when authoritarianism is on the rise; and when a lack of U.S. leadership has created a global vacuum. Using this global situation to its advantage, Beijing is pushing boundaries further than it has in the past in order to feed nationalist sentiments. The repressive new legislation has kicked in immediately in Hong Kong, with the arrest of almost 400 protesters, including at least two for displaying a Hong Kong independence flag. Under the new rules, that’s now a crime.
Canada has once again expressed concerns about the legislation. But, as with many other like-minded countries, we are also partly to blame. Freedoms in Hong Kong have been steadily eroding as a result of pressure from Beijing. Self-censorship on sensitive political issues has grown. For the past 25 years, during trips to China and Hong Kong, Canada’s leaders and senior politicians from all parties have had many opportunities to speak out publicly and forcefully. But this rarely happened – certainly not with any substance, force or consistency. The primary focus has been on promoting business with the mainland, and Canada’s reluctance to offend China’s leaders has been interpreted as an unwillingness to act to protect Hong Kong. The city became an obligatory line in every prime minister’s speech to the Canada China Business Council and a place to visit at the end of a trip to the mainland, not a venue for a substantive discourse on the importance of its continued autonomy.
Canada and like-minded partners need to formulate a strong, collective response that includes concrete measures. These could include sanctioning Chinese leaders, offering asylum or, taking a line from China’s playbook, trade action – for example, against electronic products that arguably pose a threat to national security.
This is not something any small country can do on its own to great effect. It requires collective will, the participation of big players – if not the United States, then the European Union, Japan and other major economic partners – and the recognition that there will be harmful blowback that will be shared by all participating countries. But China’s leadership has been emboldened by conciliatory responses to its own actions. Firm, concrete collective action is necessary if there is to be any hope of protecting Hong Kong’s rapidly disappearing freedoms.
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