The dramatic loss of basic freedoms in Hong Kong reveals much about the true nature of the Chinese Communist Party and its leader Xi Jinping, according to the city's former governor, Lord Chris Patten.
He believes that security laws passed in 2020 have imposed a rigid system of control over the city which is supervised by Beijing. In Lord Patten's view, China "vengefully and comprehensively demolished freedoms that it promised to safeguard in a treaty." He believes this should serve as a reminder to political leaders to be "very careful" about China's reliability as a partner.
During a meeting hosted by the Association of European Journalists at London's Regent University, Lord Patten explained that Britain governed Hong Kong as a colony — or a territory as London preferred to call it — having acquired it for "honorable and dishonorable" reasons during the Opium War in the 19th Century. On the expiry of a 99-year lease, the United Kingdom handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997.
At the time, Chris Patten called the event "a cause for celebration." He hoped a new era of autonomy and democracy would lead to a more prosperous society, imbued with liberal values.
China promised that Hong Kong's way of life would remain unchanged for at least 50 years under a remarkable arrangement that it called "one country, two systems."
Lord Patten says he was optimistic that, as in other parts of East Asia, "economic and development would eventually produce political development, with countries bursting out of the middle-income trap."
He told his audience that the Hong Kong handover was the most difficult issue he faced during his long career as a politician.
"The dilemma was that we handed over a free society — which had begun on the road to democracy and the rule of law — to China, which didn't have any of those things, and was one of the world's largest totalitarian states," he said.
Lord Patten noted that an agreement reached between China and the UK in the 1990s about the future of Hong Kong was lodged as a treaty at the United Nations. He said that for about 10 to 15 years following the handover, life in Hong Kong continued much the same as it had during the colonial era, even though there was increasing interference by the Chinese Communist Party in political affairs and no progress towards democracy.
Lord Patten said: "What changed was the arrival of Xi Jinping."
Wave of Protests
When Xi became leader in 2012, he ordered Communist loyalists to undertake an intense struggle against the tenets of liberal democracy. "The main consideration of the Communist Party policy is to sustain its position of authority. This is also the thrust of its foreign policy," he said.
In 2014, Hong Kong experienced a wave of protests, initially led by students who longed for more democracy. Additional demonstrations in 2019 were seen as a further push to maintain Hong Kong's status as a bastion of freedom in Asia. But Xi Jinping had other plans.
"Hong Kong was built on values which Xi thought were an existential threat to Chinese Communist Party rule," said Lord Patten.
He believes there has long been an assumption that the Party could retain its authority by enabling people to become more wealthy financially. However, at present, China currently faces severe economic, political, and demographic problems.
Leninism dominates the economy through the expansion of state-owned enterprises, curbs on entrepreneurship, and a trend against globalization.
Threats to Taiwan
Lord Patten claims that the CCP's failure in the economic sphere leads to a gap that is being filled by "nationalist fervor" and this is stoking up Chinese aggression towards Taiwan.
Xi Jinping has said that the self-governing island — which is a thriving democracy — should be united with China peacefully if possible, but by force if necessary.
Lord Patten said: "Spies in MI6 [Britain's overseas intelligence service] used to be clear that there would not be a war between China and Taiwan. However, the ones I know now believe the chance of conflict is fifty-fifty. Personally, I don't believe a war will happen. From a Chinese perspective, it would be crazy, not just because of the military difficulties but because of the economic consequences. I have enough faith in the intelligence of the Chinese leadership to think that they will leave Taiwan alone."
He concluded his speech by noting that representatives of the PRC are likely to continue to follow a so-called "wolf warrior" diplomacy, by making a lot of noise and stamping their feet.
"We do not need to decouple but we should de-risk," said Lord Patten. "And if the Chinese stamp their feet, we should stamp back!"
Lord Chris Patten was the British governor of Hong Kong from 1992 until the handover to China in 1997. He is Chancellor of the University of Oxford.
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Author: JAPAN Forward