Hong Kong: Xi’s Problem at the G-20

Try as he might to claim that Hong Kong is an internal matter of no concern to foreign states, Xi Jinping is finding it one from which he cannot easily escape.

The mass demonstrations which forced the suspension of a controversial bill to allow extradition to the mainland drew some of its strength from the June 4 commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, in which untold numbers of students and others died at the hands of the People’s Liberation Army.

Now an emboldened anti-extradition movement, having turned out hundreds of thousands of protesters that cowed the Hong Kong government and forced a climb-down, has seized the opportunity of the coming G-20 meeting in Tokyo to try to internationalize the issue of the city’s sovereignty, pointing out that foreign countries have legitimate interests, recognized in Hong Kong’s Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration for concerning themselves with trade and commercial issues and hence also with its separate administrative and judicial system. In the case of the US, it has its own law granting Hong Kong separate status from the mainland.

Yet another complication has been thrown into the mix with the acquittal by Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal of former Chief Executive Donald (“Bowtie”) Tsang after he had already served a year’s sentence for Misconduct in Public Office. That raises again the question of why he was accused in the first instance, a decision made only two years after he left office which must have been made at the highest level of government which would include at least a wink or a nod from Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong.

The exoneration of Tsang was made on narrow grounds but actions which led to the original charges there had not been a willful disregard for the law but rather of poor judgment.

The top court was unanimous in its verdict, which seemed to send the message that there was something of an element of politics in the prosecution and that the judges wanted it known that they were entirely independent of the executive.

It does not appear to further damage the position of current Chief Executive Carrie Lam who, like Tsang, is a practicing Catholic. But it does represent a slap-down of her predecessor C.Y. Leung, who must have approved the original prosecution. Leung himself is widely thought to have been, so far, lucky to have escaped his own prosecution for a payoff he received after becoming Chief Executive in connection with the takeover of the failed company of which he had been a director.

Meanwhile young protesters have been busy with demonstrations outside various consulates urging them to take up the issue of Hong Kong’s promised but threatened autonomy at the G-20 meeting. Substantial sums have been raised for full page advertisements in major newspapers in the US, Europe, Japan, Australia and elsewhere drawing attention to the Hong Kong situation and asking that it be raised at the meeting.

Other countries, notably the US, have more pressing China-related concerns than Hong Kong and in any case US President Donald Trump has shown little stomach for protest. Xi will be sure not to allow the issue to raise its head officially.

However, the noise is sufficient additional embarrassment for Xi at a time when suspicion of China continues to rise. This is despite the contempt with which most US allies view Trump, and their frustration with his attacks on the trade system in general, not just his trade war with China, and the potentially disastrous consequences of America’s almost deranged policy over Iran led by the National Security Advisor John Bolton.

Bolton’s obsession with the Iran “threat” dates back to encouraging Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion of Iran, which killed an estimated half-million combatants on each side and set off a chain of futile wars involving the US.

However deep may be other nations’ suspicion of China, the fact remains that the east Asian trade group continues to move ahead. The US absence since it exited TPP when Trump took office has helped China present itself as a more responsible trade partner.

Trump’s xenophobic attacks on the very trading system the US created in the wake of World War II is encouraging others, including US close allies Japan and Australia, to press ahead with the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.in an attempt to shore up global trade.

Few places are more dependent on that trade than Hong Kong. At the same time, Hong Kong is a test of whether China will go down a nationalistic path, throttling Hong Kong’s freedom in the name of patriotism, or whether the liberal trade and social values represented by the territory will be allowed to thrive and provide a hub of resistance to nationalistic and protectionist policies. It is not for nothing that Hong Kong was a place of refuge for revolutionaries from Jose Rizal to Sun Yat Sen, Emilio Aguinaldo, Ho Chi Minh and others, and is the place which equally preserves the memories of June 4 and May 4.