China’s plan to impose a new security law on Hong Kong shows that Beijing is tightening its grip on the former British colony. After a low-key initial reaction to the Chinese move, the European Union took a somewhat firmer line when European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel held a video conference with China’s president, Xi Jinping and prime minister, Li Keqiang this week. But China’s action is part of a pattern of increasingly confrontational behaviour that Europe needs to be much more forthright in calling out and responding to.
Last month, China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) authorised the drafting of a security law to be included in Hong Kong’s Basic Law – the 1997 constitution drawn up when Britain handed the territory to the Chinese, which gives Hong Kong a certain level of autonomy from Beijing under the guiding principle of “one country, two systems.” The text of the new legislation has yet to be published, but a summary from the Chinese official news agency Xinhua shows it provides, among other things, for China’s feared national security agencies to set up shop in Hong Kong – something that they have not (legally) been able to do so far.
And while the Hong Kong authorities would handle most national security cases, the Chinese government would deal with “a tiny number of criminal cases that jeopardise national security,” according to Xinhua – putting Hong Kong residents at risk of being tried in Chinese courts, where almost every defendant is found guilty. The new law follows widespread pro-democracy street protests in Hong Kong last year which irked Beijing, and it is unclear whether it will be applied retroactively.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on May 29 that the security law fundamentally undermined Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms – a step likely to lead to the withdrawal of US trade and other benefits. The UK says that the proposed law clearly violates the autonomy of Hong Kong, guaranteed under the 1997 agreement. Prime minister Boris Johnson has said Britain will give millions of people in Hong Kong a route to British citizenship if China imposes the new legislation.
The EU has also said that it believes that China’s action does not conform to the Basic Law or China’s international commitments. But it seems reluctant to draw any operational conclusions based on that judgement. Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, told reporters on May 29 that China was “a competitor, a partner, an ally, a rival,” and he did not think that sanctions were the way to resolve problems with Beijing. Von der Leyen and Michel were also studiously vague about what the EU might do in response to the imposition of the new law.
Borrell has called for a more robust EU strategy for China, but we have yet to see what that means in practice. September’s special summit between Xi Jinping and EU leaders has been postponed, but the EU should still prioritise work on a new approach to China, based on last year’s EU-China "Strategic Outlook." In that document, the EU - for the first time - identified China as a “systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.”
Borrell has tried to downplay this aspect of the relationship, writing that “it doesn’t mean that we are embarking on a systematic rivalry.” He needs to take an unflinching look at what China is really doing in its environs and beyond. It has taken issue with countries that criticise its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, such as Australia. It has pushed its territorial claims in the South China Sea and its border dispute with India in the Himalayas more assertively. It has taken a more belligerent approach to Taiwan. And Chinese diplomats in Europe, most notably in Sweden, have directed insults at their host countries.
The EU needs to get its messaging right, both to Beijing and to supporters of democracy in Hong Kong. It would be unrealistic and counter-productive for the EU to threaten economic sanctions against Hong Kong as a way of punishing Beijing, particularly when the new law has yet to be implemented. But the EU should warn Beijing – in private at first, but publicly later if necessary – that Hong Kong’s attractiveness to investors depends on the rule of law and not the rule of the Party. Chinese authorities may be able to lean on Western investors to make supportive statements about the new law in the short-term, but in the longer term businesses will draw their own conclusions about the risks involved in the changing business environment.
The EU should lay the groundwork for sanctions against any Chinese or Hong Kong officials involved in serious human rights abuses connected with the new laws – similar to the US Magnitsky Act of 2012, which was designed to punish Russian officials responsible for the murder in prison of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. As the UK and US are, the EU should also be willing to offer refuge to democracy activists from Hong Kong if they face persecution. And the EU should also ensure member-states are applying export controls on China consistently and with regard to the possibility that European goods or technology might be used to violate human rights.
EU action will be more effective if it is co-ordinated with like-minded countries, especially those in the region. Von der Leyen said on this week that the EU was in touch with the rest of the G7 about Hong Kong. It should also consider how it can give more political support to democracies in the Asia-Pacific region that are under pressure from China – including Australia and Taiwan.
Even in concert with others, the EU may not be able to change China’s course radically, but that does not mean that it has to shrug its shoulders and accept that China can do whatever it likes in Hong Kong.
- _Ian Bond is Director of Foreign Policy at the Centre for European Reform_
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