The world is falling for China’s Hong Kong trap

Andrei Lungu | 20 July 2020

The Chinese leadership’s decision to introduce national security legislation in Hong Kong has attracted global attention and condemnation. This move was unsurprising, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been trying to tighten control of the autonomous city over the past years and the lack of a national security law has been a sore spot for almost two decades. Yet it was also unexpected – it came at a moment when, as the report of a well-known think tank with ties to the country’s Ministry of State Security described, China faces the most difficult geopolitical environment since 1989, with anti-China sentiment at its highest.

Introducing national security legislation in Hong Kong less than a year after massive protests and a resounding electoral defeat, just four months before Legislative Council elections — all while the COVID-19 pandemic has focused the world’s attention and criticism on China, countries everywhere are rethinking their China policies and exploring how to shorten supply chains, and the United States government is hitting China in almost every way it can — makes no sense. Chinese leaders certainly understood that such a move would be bad for their country from a diplomatic, geopolitical, or economic point of view. Yet they did it anyway. Why?

Because, while bad for China, it makes a lot of sense politically for the CCP, Xi Jinping and the current leadership. For example, Party leaders have already been warned, sometimes publicly, by prominent Chinese international relations experts about the risks and dangers of the rising trend of aggressive diplomacy. Yet even when they saw the negative consequences unfolding before their eyes, they still didn’t abandon this aggressive style. The general view outside of China is that this policy has been adopted largely to stoke Chinese nationalism and shore up support for the party, regardless of its damage to China. Unfortunately, other Chinese actions are judged strictly from a realist foreign policy perspective, without paying enough attention to domestic pressures, party dynamics and political motivations, which are sometimes more prominent in Beijing than in other democratic capitals.

This raises the worrying possibility that introducing the national security law now (as opposed to sometime later) isn’t so much about Hong Kong, but about Beijing. If we accept that Xi and CCP leaders were aware of the blowback their Hong Kong decision would generate, then one of their main reasons for taking this decision now could have been specifically to strengthen the party’s domestic image and popularity, while generating foreign attacks on China, which will increase nationalism.

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This article has been published by Andrei Lungu, President of RISAP, in the The Diplomat. You can read the full article in The Diplomat.

Photo Credits: Hong Kong protests in the summer of 2019 (Flickr/Studio Incendo)

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Andrei Lungu​

Andrei Lungu is president of RISAP. His research interests include China’s foreign policy and its domestic politics, Sino-American relations and the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.

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