How COVID-19, Floyd protests shape China’s crackdown in Hong Kong

Tyrone Siu/Reuters
Pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong march during a protest to mark the first anniversary of a mass rally against the now-withdrawn extradition bill, June 9, 2020.
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The wave of protests since the killing of George Floyd has rattled a world political order already buffeted by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. And one consequence is being felt thousands of miles away: an increasing likelihood of a Chinese security crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

When Beijing first signaled its intentions last month, it was part of a political fightback by the Chinese leadership on the coronavirus, which began its spread in the Chinese city of Wuhan. While China had by then largely contained the virus, major Western countries were still struggling with large numbers of cases.

Why We Wrote This

The killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests in the U.S. appear to have made China more confident about shrugging off any criticism it might get over human rights issues.

Still, there was strong international pushback, especially from the United States.

Now, Chinese statements following the killing of Mr. Floyd, and the Trump administration’s call for a tough response to the protests in U.S. cities, suggest that Beijing is feeling even more confident about going ahead with the crackdown.

The gist of the Chinese message is that any U.S. objections to a toughened “law and order” intervention in Hong Kong – given the administration’s response to the protests over Mr. Floyd’s killing – will be dismissed as hypocrisy.

A new jolt to world politics – the wave of protests since the killing of George Floyd – has added to the already seismic effects of COVID-19. And one important consequence, thousands of miles away, is an increasing likelihood China will soon crack down on political freedoms in Hong Kong.

There’s no direct tie between either upheaval and China’s threat to impose tough new security legislation in Hong Kong. That was made last month, and it prompted a strong public response from Western governments.

But the timing of the initial announcement was affected by the altered politics of the coronavirus, which began its spread from the Chinese city of Wuhan. It was part of an increasingly self-confident political fightback by China’s leadership, which had largely contained the virus while major Western countries were still struggling to deal with large numbers of cases.   

Why We Wrote This

The killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests in the U.S. appear to have made China more confident about shrugging off any criticism it might get over human rights issues.

Now, China’s response to the Floyd killing has suggested it will feel even more confident about going ahead with the crackdown and shrugging off overseas objections, especially from the United States.

A major outlier

In much of the world, the response to the protests in American cities has been to sympathize with their declared aim of rooting out racism. Solidarity marches have been held in dozens of overseas cities: Thousands of protesters took to the streets of London last Sunday, for instance, despite Britain’s continuing struggle with COVID-19.

China’s response to Mr. Floyd’s death, however, was a major outlier, and not just because there were no public demonstrations of solidarity there. That was unsurprising given the tight controls on independent expression under leader Xi Jinping. More striking, and directly relevant to Hong Kong, were China’s pointedly critical comments about the Floyd killing, and about the Trump administration’s support for strong police and military action to contain unrest.

China’s clear message to Washington was this: You are in no position to accuse us of human rights violations, given the killing of Mr. Floyd in police custody and the administration’s tough reply to the protests.

This link was made explicit in China’s response to a U.S. State Department spokeswoman’s tweet a few days after the Floyd killing. She urged “freedom-loving people” everywhere to stand up for the rule of law and oppose Beijing’s plan for Hong Kong. She accused China of breaking its promises – a reference to the 1997 agreement in which Britain handed back Hong Kong to China, guaranteeing its autonomy and distinct legal protections at least until 2047.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman tweeted a brief phrase in reply to the statement, “I can’t breathe,” the three words caught on video in the final minutes of Mr. Floyd’s life.

China’s official Xinhua news agency was similarly biting in commenting on incidents of violence in some of the early protests in Washington, D.C. Recalling a remark last year by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong were “a beautiful sight,” Xinhua described the Washington unrest as “Pelosi’s beautiful landscape.”

The editor of Global Times, the tabloid published by the Communist Party’s People’s Daily, taunted President Donald Trump personally while also drawing a parallel with Hong Kong. Rather than “hide behind the Secret Service,” the editor, Hu Xijin, urged the president to “negotiate” with the demonstrators, “just like you urged Beijing to talk to Hong Kong rioters.”

A dramatic intervention

Even at present, Hong Kong’s freedoms are constrained. During the enormous street protests that began there a year ago this week over a proposed new law that would have allowed extraditions to the mainland, one increasingly urgent demand was for directly elected local government.

Yet Hong Kong does have an independent judiciary. Hong Kongers have far greater economic freedom and civil liberties than do Chinese on the mainland, including freedom of expression. Even last week, thousands ignored a police ban to mark the anniversary of the June 4, 1989, massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square – a commemoration unthinkable in mainland China.

For months, until COVID-19 precautions largely ended public protests in Hong Kong, China was getting increasingly impatient with the local authorities’ inability to halt them. Yet with China also in negotiations with the U.S. to wind down their tariff war, there was no sign that Beijing was ready to intervene directly.

The new security law would represent a dramatic intervention. It would supersede Hong Kong’s post-1997 legal dispensation and criminalize a wide range of political expression, in effect bringing the city into line with the rest of China.

And any chance that Beijing might have reconsidered as a result of international pushback against the prospect of a Hong Kong security crackdown now seems to have vanished, given its bullishly defiant political response to the George Floyd protests.

Internal security has become an overriding priority under Mr. Xi. And while Hong Kong in 1997 was a major contributor to China’s gross domestic product, China's economy has since grown to become the world’s second-largest, with Hong Kong’s contribution far more negligible. Even the fact the initial U.S. response has involved not just words but action – a move to end the special economic and trade disposition extended to Hong Kong due to its special status inside China – seems unlikely to matter. 

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