China announced earlier this month that it was suspending visits by U.S. military ships and aircraft to Hong Kong, a reaction to a new law formalising America’s support for pro-democracy protesters in the special administrative region. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which was signed by President Trump late last month, requires an annual review of whether Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to justify the favourable trade status that it currently enjoys. China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Hua Chunying, said the law represented “serious interference in China’s internal affairs,” and also confirmed the imposition of unspecified sanctions against several U.S.-based NGOs who she described as responsible for the “chaos in Hong Kong.”
These developments come at a sensitive time for Sino-American relations, as the two countries seek to strike a deal to end the ongoing trade war. Michael Raska, a security expert at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, told AFP that America’s plethora of naval bases in East Asia means the impact of the decision on the US military will be minimal. He noted, however, that it “sends a signal that US-China tensions will continue to deepen.” Other observers are more optimistic. Michael Hirson, former chief representative of the U.S. Treasury in Beijing, suggested that China’s response can be partly explained as “posturing for the domestic audience,” according to the BBC. He argued that China “will not be so upset as to let this stand in the way of a truce over trade.”
One conclusion that is difficult to dispute is that prospects for a peaceful resolution to the Hong Kong protests appear ever more remote. Hua’s statements blaming NGOs for the unrest conform with an inaccurate narrative that Chinese officials have consistently attempted to push in recent months: that the demonstrations are part of a malicious campaign orchestrated by Western agitators. Given President Xi’s desire to appear steadfast – both in the face of internal dissent, but also against American criticism – concessions to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists, who are leading the protests, seem unlikely. In addition, although foreign NGOs already face heavy restrictions in China, the sanctions levelled against groups including Human Rights Watch and Freedom House will further reduce scrutiny of the country’s human rights record at a critical time. Moreover, the American government’s willingness to hold China to account regarding its treatment of the protesters may be tempered as it looks to prevent further degradation of relations. President Trump, who has already been more equivocal than most U.S. politicians in his response to the situation in Hong Kong – his tweets on the subject refer to President Xi as a “great leader” and “good man” – is also concerned about his own “domestic audience,” and is very eager to conclude a deal on trade.
The protests that have led to this moment mark the most tumultuous six-month period in Hong Kong since the Handover in 1997. Mass demonstrations began in June, sparked by a proposed law which would have allowed the region’s government to extradite criminal suspects to mainland China. Though the extradition bill has since been withdrawn, it catalysed a broader movement advocating for democracy and greater autonomy from Beijing. Hong Kong police claim to have arrested more than 6,000 people involved in the protests – forty per cent of whom are students – and at least 2,600 people have been injured. The movement was emboldened by the results of last month’s district council elections, where pro-democracy activists won a landslide amid a record turnout for an election in Hong Kong.
Although the material consequences of Beijing’s response to the Human Rights and Democracy Act may be limited, the ramifications for protestors in Hong Kong and China’s relationship with the United States cannot be understated. American ships will dock in other ports and the work of NGOs will continue, albeit with further obstruction. But the Chinese government’s announcement demonstrates their unwillingness to back down in response to pressure either from the protesters or from the U.S. The unrest in Hong Kong will continue unabated, and tensions between the world’s two largest military and economic powers will endure.
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