China is considering the enactment of the Hong Kong National Security Law, and it is expected to pass soon.* U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that the U.S. will impose visa restrictions on former and current Chinese government officials and their dependents as punishment for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy and human rights, and the list of names reportedly includes Wang Yang and Han Zheng. Judging from the recent conflict between China and the United States involving political, economic and military forces, as well as issues regarding Taiwan and Hong Kong, if we view the first wave of the China threat theory in the 1990s as an inevitability of the post-Cold War era, then the end of this new cold war – a China threat theory 2.0 – is still not in sight.
It is still too early to say whether the National Security Law will destroy the “one country, two systems” principle in Hong Kong. Chinese mainland officials continue to emphasize that this is a necessary step to protect the workings of the “one country, two systems” principle. The situation in Hong Kong is indeed complex. Take last year’s anti-extradition protests as an example. It would be enough to say that the plan was to rebuild new order through sabotage, but it is also undeniable that many young people used violence to undermine social order, wreck school campuses, and even cause damage to public and private institutions and enterprises, all to get the government to do what they wanted. To put it frankly, the slow response of the Hong Kong government to the demands of Hong Kong citizens indeed spurred public anger and grievances, leading to the escalation of the situation. The eventual price to be paid includes the implementation of this National Security Law.
It is then clear that, in order to return to normalcy and declare Hong Kong as part of the “one country,” the Hong Kong National Security Law had to be drafted. However, it is still too early to say whether this means that Beijing will violate the “one country, two systems” principle. The controversy is over whether the establishment of a Hong Kong National Security Committee and a court to consider national security cases will happen. However, the involvement of Beijing agencies in Hong Kong has long been the norm, and examples include the “underground propagandist” that is the Xinhua News Agency, the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in Hong Kong after Hong Kong’s handover to China, and not to mention the People’s Liberation Army Hong Kong Garrison, the representation of sovereignty over Hong Kong. The latter is an additional demonstration of sovereignty, for the British judges must not have the final word.
In addition to the situation involving the Hong Kong National Security Law, high-ranking Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi and Pompeo met in Hawaii a few days ago, and although it was the first time in 10 months that U.S. and Chinese high-level officials met, they simply talked past each other and only managed to implement the first phase of a trade agreement. Other than that, the two merely declared respective positions on issues such as those involving Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet. China’s recent rare release of nearly 100 appalling pictures of the Xinjiang independence movement is nothing less than a warning to the outside world as to how a country without public power should be controlled.
However, one of the features of this new cold war is that although anti-China sentiment has become the norm in the run-up to the presidential election, even China experts such as Kenneth Lieberthal, who in the past had been pro-China, have been uncharacteristically tough on China, indicating that this wave of China Threat Theory in the U.S. has garnered consensus among the both government and public, and is now something that is not easy to reverse.
The China Threat Theory that emerged in the West after Tiananmen Square maintained momentum as a force beyond the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 1989 revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe in the post-Cold War era. Yet as Deng Xiaoping continued to expand his reforms and open up the country, and as his successors continued to keep a low profile and cultivate national power, the principle of “keeping low and biding time” was well received by several U.S. presidents, including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. However, under this new cold war, China-U.S. relations have developed into all out confrontation, and there are no signs of a turnaround in the near future.
In his new book, former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton reveals that President Donald Trump Trump called Xi Jinping China’s greatest leader and appealed to Xi for help in Trump’s reelection effort. This may also be the reason why there have been rumors that Beijing would prefer Trump’s reelection; after all, as long as the promises of profit are alluring enough, Beijing will be able to steer the strategic wheel and not have to worry about Trump playing any new tricks.
Amid this new cold war, the world’s great powers continually emphasize the value of “sharp power,” dividing the world into black and white. Yet this strategy will not be productive in the long run. In order to make a difference, it is important to focus one’s aim at the heart of the people. This is the meaning of American political scientist Joseph Nye’s concept of “soft power.”
*Editor’s note: The Hong Kong National Security Law was enacted on June 30.
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