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"The unintended consequence of Trump's action is the US loss of influence in Hong Kong."
Is Hong Kong at the centre of a new Cold War? Are we the playground for a conflict between East and West or a useful distraction for Trump's 'clown-world' Covid-19 shambles?
In this febrile atmosphere, people see conspiracies and agent-provocateurs on every street corner. What took place matters less than what someone thinks happened. In all this, the truth and facts are irrelevant. Friedrich Nietzsche's "There are no facts; only interpretations" echoes through these events. Thus, while the evidence of suppression of Hong Kong's freedoms is weak, it's now the trope that trips off the tongue of Western politicians.
The media are busy feeding this narrative. The Spectator magazine ran with this "... even as it absorbs Hong Kong, in flagrant violation of its 1997 agreement with Great Britain regarding the autonomy of the city." OK, this simple statement is incorrect on many levels. Let's unpack it. First, the term 'absorbs Hong Kong' ignores the history that Hong Kong was taken from China by force and is Chinese territory.
Next, whether anyone violated the 1997 agreement remains a matter of heated debate, and it's not clear who can settle the case. Last and critically, Hong Kong was never granted full-autonomy. The 1997 agreement gave the city semi-autonomy with Beijing retaining the power to act in the same manner as the UK when it ruled over this place.
After the implementation of the national security law on 1 July, the Guardian ran a headline "China's Great Firewall descends on Hong Kong." A blatant lie. I still have Facebook, WhatsApp and all the other stuff. Yes, Tic Tok has gone. Tic Tok's departure is by choice, with a long backstory related to ownership of the company. Meanwhile, the VPN providers are pumping out horrors stories to drum up business.
Take a look through the local newspapers to find all aspects of the NSL analysed by a multitude of voices expressing a variety of views. Moreover, there are ample signs that reporters continue to raise difficult questions with officials. When I've asked journalist friends, "what are the suppressed stories?" I get blank stares.
Our hapless Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, when challenged on press freedom, responded with "If all reporters in Hong Kong can give me a 100 per cent guarantee that they will not commit any offences under this piece of legislation, then I can do the same." This non-answer suggests Carrie may have a sense of humour.
Then last week, Trump removed Hong Kong's so-called special trade status, in an expected move. On the day of the announcement, the stock market went up. What is more, manufacturers anticipated this decision years ago, as many shifted production lines to other jurisdictions. In truth, any impact is minimal.
At the same time, the Hong Kong dollar is testing the upper limits of the currency peg as funds flood into Hong Kong. The Monetary Authority had to sell Hong Kong dollars and buy US dollars to protect the peg. The Financial Secretary claims US$100 billion returned to Hong Kong. Thus contrary to all the naysayers, the NSL brought the stability that business needs.
Likewise, embargoes on equipment sales and cross-training with the Hong Kong Police have few tangible effects. For the past decade, the Force built up a diversity of suppliers. On the training front, for some years, the US proved less suited to Hong Kong's needs. Their over-reliance on guns and outdated kinetic tactics didn't sit well here.
Add to that the tactical innovations the Hong Kong Police made in 2019, which mean the US is losing out from the lack of cross-training. The fact that the Hong Kong Police contained an uprising, without killing a single person attests to the Force's skill. Can the US claim the same? How are things going in Portland? Meanwhile, in Chicago, 1,901 people have been shot this year. That is 550 more than in 2019.
The unintended consequence of Trump's action is the US loss of influence in Hong Kong. As an example, the personal rapport between the US and Hong Kong law enforcement is over. With that goes much-undeclared cooperation that helps fight terrorism and crime. As I know from personal experience, these contacts produce tremendous benefits for both sides.
In the future, a criminal or terrorist that the US wants will wash up in Hong Kong — remember Snowden. Dealing with the arrest and extradition will now face extra hurdles. After all, we currently have a murderer walking amongst us because of the withdrawal of the extradition bill. In short, Trump's sanctions are a blunt instrument probably aimed at assuaging his domestics critics.
So while comparisons with the Cold War are intriguing, these are far from exact and often mistaken. After all, the two scenarios come stamped by significant differences. For starters, China in 2020 has economic clout that the Soviet Union never approached. Thus, any rivalry between the two nations must play out within the context of economic interdependence.
Second, the USA is dealing with a much more robust and adept adversary in China. Beijing's diplomatic reach is substantial, while Trump is busy eroding the USA's international standing. For example, when the USA pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it handed Beijing a win. China could claim, with much evidence, that the USA is an unreliable partner in Asia.
Since then, Trump has picked disputes with all the USA's traditional allies. Even relations with Europe are deteriorating. John Bolton made clear in his book ‘The Room Where It Happened’ that Trump detests the EU and NATO. As long as Trump is in office, no nation can be confident that it won't be a target. That plays into China's hands.
Third, unlike the Cold War, no sharp ideological divide exists between the USA and China. At first blush, that's an unsustainable statement given the differences in governance. But consider that the Soviets hated the West's liberal democracies and sought victory over them. China does not share such a belief. China has a nationalistic ideology, with Washington seen as an obstacle rather than the enemy.
Also, it is interesting that within China, public support for the regime is at its highest level ever. Research from Harvard has found compelling evidence that reinforces descriptions of CCP resilience. You could argue that at every turn, criticism from overseas strengthens the CCP's hand. In that sense, it is all counter-productive if the aim is to inflict damage on the CCP at home.
As the US election approaches, China-bashing will increase with Hong Kong playing into that equation as a useful tool. Further, Covid-19 feeds the frenzy with Trump blaming Beijing for 'allowing it to spread.' Although Trump appears incapable of containing Covid-19 in the US, so what exactly he expected China to do is unclear. At the very least you’d think Trump could see that.
Yet, with Trump's re-election prospects looking shaky, battering China is an easy option. You can see that he will continue to mine the rich seam of gullibility that runs through certain sections of the US population. I'm not sure we've reached the Cold War arena yet, but there is a chilly wind blowing.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.