There was always a shading of uncertainty about the landmark agreement between China and Great Britain on the decolonization of Hong Kong. It has been just shy of 30 years since Margaret Thatcher and then–prime minister Zhao Zhiyang signed a joint declaration on December 19, 1984, agreeing that Beijing would resume exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong. In order to assure the transfer of power in 1997, the Chinese government agreed to the famous “one country, two systems” formulation in which Hong Kong’s way of life was guaranteed to remain inviolable for 50 years, until 2047. Central to the agreement was an assurance by China that Hong Kong (now to be a special administrative region) would have a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defense affairs.
Now, just 17 years after the British pulled down their flag in Hong Kong, Beijing has revealed its true intentions and the worthlessness of its international agreements. Last week, China’s rubberstamp parliament, the National People’s Congress, overturned the core of the 1984 agreement by reneging on its promise that the 2017 election for Hong Kong’s chief executive will be a free and open affair. Instead, Hong Kong voters will be able to choose only from candidates approved by a Beijing-dominated nominating committee, and only two or three will be allowed on the ballot. In essence, Hong Kong’s democracy is being strangled at the top. Success in controlling the electoral process would certainly embolden Beijing to exert pressure (or worse) on Hong Kong’s independent judiciary and free press. Hong Kong opposition groups immediately planned massive protests against last week’s ruling, but those appear to have died out as suddenly as they were conjured up. The message to Taiwan, which is considering how close to get to China, is obvious, but Beijing apparently fears potentially free elections on its territory more than it does presenting a moderate face to the world.
London knew from the moment it signed the agreement in 1984 that it would have no way of enforcing the joint declaration. Instead, Britain presumed that such massive backlash both in Hong Kong and throughout the world would erupt if Beijing broke its promises that no Chinese leader would think the gamble worthwhile. Such protests might have been enough to rein in China if the country had imbibed the liberal norms the Western world has so desperately waited for it to embrace. It also might have been enough if Beijing believed that the rest of the world would impose some type of cost for its aggressive bad faith. Such, however, is patently not the case.
It hardly needs saying that the China of 2014 is dramatically different in almost every aspect from what it was in 1984. Economically, militarily, and politically, it is stronger, more respected, more assertive, and more confident (while still uncertain of itself in many ways). Chinese President Xi Jinping has shown himself to be a forceful proponent of pushing China’s advantage whenever and wherever possible, against opponents weak and strong alike. His action on Hong Kong is neither shocking nor unexpected, given what the world has come to learn of modern China. Whether pressuring smaller neighbors over territorial disputes, suppressing Tibetans and Uighurs, harassing U.S. military ships and planes, or breaking international agreements, China’s toxic mix of victimhood and revisionist nationalism is steadily increasing Asia’s uncertainty and sense of insecurity.
Compared with the butchers of ISIS or Vladimir Putin, China looks like a relatively peaceful and productive member of the international community. Yet it is playing a steady long-game in Asia of undercutting international norms and civil behavior, maneuvering smaller nations into making seemingly aggressive responses to Chinese actions, resolutely building up its strength, and patiently waiting for other nations in the region to redefine their own national interests or simply accept the futility of forever opposing China. That is the new normal now shaping international relations in Asia.
China’s government remains as illiberal as it was when the United States helped midwife it into the international community. It may talk the talk, but when it walks, it reveals its true nature. The lessons of Hong Kong should cast long shadows in Asia and bring about a new, sober realism that its largest player will threaten liberal values whenever it senses the lack of opposition. So far, there is all too little will to muster a response, ensuring that Asia’s new normal becomes further entrenched.