Hong Kong Updates: A City Approaching Its Boiling Point?

Rob La Terza

Tensions in Hong Kong have continued to rise in the past several days, as the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, Beijing raised the possibility of striking down the Hong Kong High Court’s ruling on the city’s mask ban, and new reports revealed China’s abduction and torture of former UK consulate employee Simon Cheng. As protests and police countermeasures grow increasingly violent, these developments are more likely to fan the city’s flames than calm them. The ongoing crisis may also sour relations between Washington and Beijing, decreasing the chances that the world’s two largest economies will be able to end their trade conflict.

While no senators objected to passing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, it has further hurdles to clear before becoming law. Before landing on President Trump’s desk, the Act must be sent back to the House of Representatives so the lower chamber can approve or reject changes made by the Senate. The Senate bill retains the core of the House bill, mandating an annual report from the State Department to Congress on whether Hong Kong’s democratic system has become too eroded to justify the U.S.’s special relationship with the city [For further information on the House bill, read USCNPM’s previous coverage here.] The official summary of the Senate bill specifies that the State Department must also report how changes to Hong Kong’s status affect U.S.-Hong Kong cooperation. It also adds that the President must provide a strategy to Congress to protect American citizens and corporations in Hong Kong and report to Congress about “whether Hong Kong is legally competent to administer various law enforcement agreements between Hong Kong and the United States” if the city enacts legislation that “puts U.S. citizens at risk of extradition to mainland China or to another country that lacks defendants’ rights protections.” If the bill passes the House, which is likely, President Trump will have to either sign it into law or veto it. This step is likely a formality, as the House and Senate have the votes required to overturn a Trump veto.

China strongly opposed the bill’s passing and urged the U.S. not to sign it into law, with the Foreign Ministry stating, “China will take strong opposing measures, and the U.S. has to bear all the consequences.” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu also called U.S. embassy minister counselor for political affairs William Klein for a meeting, telling Klein that the Hong Kong protests are “part of China’s internal affairs” and ordered the U.S. not to interfere.     

The Hong Kong High Court’s overturning of the special administrative region’s mask ban also raised Beijing’s ire. On November 18, the High Court ruled that the Emergency Regulations Ordinance, which Hong Kong’s government used to justify the mask ban, was unconstitutional “when invoked on the grounds of public danger.” The Court argued that the ban was “excessive.” Several Beijing spokespersons criticized the ruling. Yang Guan, the spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs office of the State Council, stated that the high court’s ruling “had a ‘serious and negative sociopolitical impact.’” Legislative Affairs Commission of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) spokesman Yan Tanwei’s remarks were far more controversial, saying, “Whether the laws of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region comply with the Basic Law of Hong Kong can only be judged and decided by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress,” and “No other authority has the right to make judgments and decisions.” Yang and Yan’s remarks have led to fears that Beijing will unilaterally interfere, issuing its own ruling and interpretation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law. The Basic Law does impose limits on Hong Kong courts’ jurisdiction, with Article 158 specifying that Hong Kong courts can issue rulings on disputed sections of the Basic Law when they fall “within the limits of the autonomy of the region,” while in cases that involve “the relationship between the central authorities and the region,” NPCSC must issue a ruling, which Hong Kong is required to abide by. Regardless of Beijing’s legal authority, any move it makes to interfere in Hong Kong’s legal system will likely inspire greater popular unrest and reinvigorate protests. 

On November 20th, former British consulate employee Simon Cheng came forward to tell of his abduction and torture at the hands of Chinese secret police, an account that illustrates why Hong Kongers have been roused into months-long protest by Beijing’s attempts to gain further authority in the special administrative region. In August, Cheng was detained by Chinese police while attempting to return from Hong Kong from the mainland city of Shenzhen. The state-run news outlet Global Times claimed that Cheng was “detained for ‘solicitation of prostitution.’” His family stated that the allegations against Cheng were false. Cheng was released on August 24. In his November 20 account, Cheng states that he was detained for fifteen days and tortured through methods such as hanging him from an X-shaped cross using handcuffs and shackles for hours at a time, as well as forcing him to perform exercises and beating him when he was physically unable to follow his captors’ instructions. The motive behind Cheng’s detention is clear, as he writes that he was “accused of being a British spy and questioned at length about protest leaders and their links to the London School of Economics.” His torturers eventually proposed that “he should work for the Chinese ‘motherland.’” Cheng stated, “I was suspected of being a mastermind and British proxy to incite and organize the protests in Hong Kong.” The former consulate employee came forward despite threats against him, with Reuters reporting that he was threatened with a second abduction to mainland China if he spoke publicly. Although the British Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, summoned Chinese ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming to criticize Cheng’s treatment, the Chinese ambassador initially ignored the summons. When the meeting eventually took place, China claimed Liu met with Raab to criticize Britain’s remarks and stance on the Hong Kong protests. Liu denied any Chinese wrongdoing connected with Cheng’s detention.

These events have the potential to exacerbate the Hong Kong protests, which in turn could lead to worsening relations between China and the West. As the crisis continues, the chances of the U.S. and China striking a trade deal continue to decrease, and a continuation of the trade war could trigger a global economic recession. The U.S. and China should allow Hong Kong to calm the protests on its own. Hong Kong’s peaceful return to the pre-protest status quo would not undermine the two nations’ attempts to settle their differences, while an intervention by Beijing would be disastrous. Similarly, although there is little the U.S. can do to influence the protests, any action Beijing could perceive as promoting the protests could hurt the bilateral relationship and undermine the two nations’ chances of achieving a trade deal. However, events appear to be turning for the worse rather than better, making a mutually satisfactory outcome less likely. 

Rob La Terza is an intern in The Carter Center’s China Program. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of The Carter Center.