Hong Kong Is Caught in the Middle of the Great U.S.-China Power Struggle

The Kowloon district of Hong Kong, seen from
                    Lion Rock during a pro-democracy gathering in September

Life in Hong Kong had only just started to resemble a new normal after the threat of the pandemic subsided. But there they were again on May 24, dressed in black, ready for the storm brewing. “This is a fresh hell,” says Sukie, 25, who asked to use only her nickname for safety reasons.

After almost a year of widespread, sometimes violent pro-democracy protests in the former British colony, China had announced sweeping new security measures that will prevent and punish any secession, subversion, terrorism or foreign interference in Hong Kong. Successive city leaders refrained from passing such a law in fear of demonstrations, and so Beijing bypassed the legislature to impose the bill itself. In the rest of China, these kinds of measures are regularly leveled to stifle dissent. The intent is clear, says Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Control is the No. 1 consideration.”

The law, which could be enacted by late June, is poised to curtail the liberties that set Hong Kong–long a conduit between East and West–apart from the mainland; its free speech, free assembly and independent judiciary. It also opened another front in China’s ongoing conflict with the U.S., after three years of bruising disputes on trade, espionage and intellectual property.

In response, the Trump Administration announced Hong Kong was no longer a free city, and pledged to revoke its preferable exemptions on trading, customs, travel and more. The world once had a “sense of optimism that Hong Kong was a glimpse into China’s future,” President Donald Trump said on May 29, “not that Hong Kong would grow into a reflection of China’s past.”

Police circle detainees near the city’s legislature on May 27, as the debate over the national-security bill was set to resume
Police circle detainees near the city’s legislature on May 27, as the debate over the national-security bill was set to resume
 
Miguel Candela—EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

In the past few months, tensions between the U.S. and China have dramatically worsened. A relationship that has swung between outbreaks of hostility and grudging collaboration is now settling into long-term estrangement. At the end of May, Trump signed a major China policy document that argues 40 years of U.S. engagement with China has failed to produce the “citizencentric, free and open rules-based order” the U.S. hoped it would. The following week, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi fired back that it was “wishful thinking for the U.S. to change China,” and accused Washington of attempting to foment a “new cold war.”

The pandemic is the backdrop to these tensions. While China’s President Xi Jinping hopes to rile up nationalism at home to distract from the economic wreckage wrought by the coronavirus, Trump is turning to anti-China sentiment to shift focus from his own response to the outbreak. Hong Kong, about which the U.S. President has previously said little, offers a new line of attack. “Trump is hardly a crusader for liberal democratic values,” Orville Schell, the director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, tells TIME. “But he is dedicated to blaming China as a way to escape the burdens of his own irresponsibility.”




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