One can look at the future of the 7 million people of Hong Kong only with the deepest foreboding. The advent of the new national security law, and early evidence of the Chinese Communist Party's immediate show of determination to use it to quell any significant dissent, suggests that the notion of One Country Two Systems is about to become a fiction, and that Hong Kong's place as an essentially free community subject to an accountable rule of law is on the way out.
One can expect first an outflow of capital, and soon of people. Hong Kong is not only a port of entry into China and the Chinese economy, it is also a major financial centre in its own right - a once safe place for currency transactions and international investment having nothing much to do with China itself. Its businessmen and women have long been prudently diversifying from property and investments based in Hong Kong or China, and now hold substantial property in Britain, Australia, Canada and the United States, as well as in Europe and south-east Asia. The capacity of Hong Kong to attract capital and investment has turned on local and international confidence in its courts system, and in an anti-corruption system of a calibre that ought to humiliate the Commonwealth of Australia.
About 40 per cent of the population, all at least over the age of 23, have limited rights of travel and residence in Britain, in terms negotiated before the handover. Others are also citizens of Canada, Australia, the United States and New Zealand, or in some cases, of south-east Asian and Pacific countries, having set up such potential boltholes over the past three decades in case things went bad in Hong Kong, but, while China abided by its promises and they retained faith in the future, being content to headquarter themselves in Hong Kong. Many such people, among the most wealthy and entrepreneurial part of the population, bought land and businesses overseas so that they could, if needs be, abandon ship and write off their Chinese property.
What's not so clear is whether Australia has anything of the sort of integrated strategy, or the focus and sense of enduring national interest, that China appears to have.
One can take it that the Chinese government is fully aware of the risks it is taking, whether in terms of local and international confidence in the institutions of Hong Kong or with a population which has become steadily more fractious at central government attempts to interfere with its way of life, and which has demonstrated willingness to take to the streets. No doubt it does not intend a vast program of mass arrests, instead seeking to arrest and try some of the most prominent activists, arguing that demands for greater self-government, less interference from Beijing and an end to the imposition of laws, first over extradition to China, and now over sedition, amount to threats to national security and terrorism (all as defined, vaguely, by Beijing). All of this without consultation with, or the consent of, either the population or its half-elected legislated assembly.
The Economist has quoted a senior adviser in Hong Kong, Lau Siu-Kai, as saying that the aim of the new law is "to kill a few chickens to frighten the monkeys" - in somewhat the same manner as the party likes to crush dissent on the mainland. This is consistent with the official line that the problems of the past 18 months have been the work of a few troublemakers - pawns, witting or unwitting, of foreigners trying to stir up trouble. One of the crimes one can commit involves "collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security" - the endangerment, as with Australia's not-much-less-draconian or accountable national security laws, being not much more than supporting something of which its department of home affairs disapproved.
But both the evidence of those troubles (including the efforts by thousands in almost continual demonstrations against the extradition laws to disguise themselves against photographic identification) and of those preaching continued defiance suggests that many will continue to resist, and risk consequences by doing so. It may be, indeed, that the protesters crossed this psychological Rubicon towards the end of last year, as Chinese troops massed on the border and threats of intervention became more open. The protesters realised that submission to a new type of outside rule, or meek retreat after threats of force, could only accentuate their danger once Beijing had enforced its will.
Only the truly credulous (the White House and about 10 million US Republicans) could imagine that Beijing planned and organised the COVID-19 pandemic with a view to distracting the whole world, including perhaps Hong Kong itself, from its sinister intentions. But there seems little doubt that China has used the opportunity of the screen of the pandemic as it has toughened up its foreign policy talk, and become more and more dismissive and contemptuous of Western disapproval of Chinese activities in the South China Sea, of its assimilationist policies towards the Uighurs, or talk of a suddenly aggressive China with a plan to shake up the region.
Those in Australia who seem to want to provoke a war with China, or at the least are seemingly hellbent on warning of imminent hostilities, will no doubt shake their heads wisely at the new Chinese activity in Hong Kong to say "I told you so". Yet while the fear and the threat of a major Chinese intervention in Hong Kong has been about for a while, it has not been a major aspect of their warnings and alarms. This is perhaps because the ultra-hawks are quite uncertain about how we could - indeed, how we should - respond if this occurs. It also adds to a more general claim that China is never to be trusted, regardless of what it says about the purity of its intentions.
Our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has indicated, in vague terms, that Australia would be prepared to take refugees from Hong Kong. I expect that he means to evacuate people, Chinese or Western, with some right to enter Australia, or have another country to which they have a right of entry. Boris Johnson has said somewhat more, if again without great specificity, and other countries have signalled their willingness to give shelter to the cleverest and the richest of those seeking boltholes.
But it is by no means clear how a mass exit from Hong Kong could occur. Particularly when one bears in mind that China does not usually recognise foreign passports or the identity documents of people with rights as British nationals overseas, least of all when they are resident in Hong Kong, part of China itself. It regards them as ordinary Chinese citizens with no particular rights. Traditionally, people from Hong Kong have been allowed to fly or sail abroad without government permission, but one might expect that the authoritarian state would soon assert itself if there were any sort of mass exodus, signs of public panic, or orchestrated international disapproval of how Chinese "brutality and interference" was trampling on the human rights of the people of Hong Kong.
Our lapdogs yap from a safe distance
The Western world will probably see the absorption of Hong Kong, or Taiwan, as something that affects its national interests, in a way that the fate of Tibetans and Uighurs does not. Just what the West would, or could do, adjacent to Chinese territory is not so clear. One can see the Americans raining a shower of missiles alongside Taiwan's if China crossed the Taiwan Strait, but I cannot see any commitment of its troops to a struggle it could not win. Likewise with any impulse to show solidarity with Hong Kong, other than by grandstanding, sanctions, and willingness to accept refugees if they can get out. Hong Kong has shown considerable power to resist a political takeover, but it has no military power and would not be helped by foreign troops engaged with Chinese ones.
The world recognises that Hong Kong is a part of China, and for reasons of history can never again be severed from it. Beijing is far from sentimental about the rights it has promised Hong Kong, or about arguments that anything less than those rights is a breach of human rights. The biggest argument against a takeover is the damage it would do to the Hong Kong (and, ultimately, the Chinese) economy were its central banking system and its legal system to collapse, were there to be a flight of capital, and were there to be a loss of some of China's best and brightest entrepreneurs.
China has been absolutely indifferent to international criticism of its treatment of the Uighurs and Tibetans, and to its repression of a democracy movement at Tiananmen Square. There is no evidence of moderated behaviour in response to such criticism (except during a period of especial sensitivity during the 2004 Olympics). With the support of perhaps a third of the world, including most of ASEAN, it regards what it does to its citizens as a purely internal affair, with which no other country can meddle.
For decades Australia was willing to sever human rights concerns from ordinary matters of trade or diplomatic relations - consigning them instead to an annual, and fairly meaningless, "dialogue". Even now, those warning of the risks of greater Chinese influence, and military power, in the region tend to focus on its being an authoritarian state, controlled by the Communist Party, and generally oppressing its populations, including with an increasingly sinister mass-surveillance system. Not many garments have been rent with specific internal examples of its beastliness.
Instead, the focus on the risk from China has been on its increasing military power, and its open ambition to be able to push the US and its allies to the first island chain. There is a fear of Chinese aggression in the South China and East China seas, but, rather more worry about attempts by China to dominate and control the area by its general influence, rather than by force in war.
Our would-be warriors are willing to put Australian lives at risk rather more due to dread interpretations of China's behaviour than clear intelligence of its sinister intent. Thus China's arguments with its neighbours about islands in the South China Sea are focused in terms of fortification and extra capacity to project power. Whether in fact China has any right to possess such islands, there is little that it has done that has actually much increased its military or maritime power in the region. It is an inference that it wants to control fishing operations, or oil and gas exploration. China and the US have somewhat different notions about what freedom of navigation means - particularly as to the transit of warships - but there is no evidence that China has plans to interfere with the movement of ships. It is certainly seeking greater influence in south-east Asia and the Pacific - more than enough to spark some rivalry from nations such as Australia - but little as we might like it, that does not prove China is pursuing an expansion of its territory, by force if necessary.
A recent Congressional Research Service paper on US-China strategic competition remarks that China appears to have identified the assertion and defence of its maritime territorial claims in the South and East China seas, and the strengthening of its position in the South China Sea, as important national goals. No great surprise there.
"To achieve these goals, China appears to be employing an integrated whole-of-society strategy that includes diplomatic, informational, economic, military, paramilitary/law enforcement and civilian elements," the report says.
"In implementing this integrated strategy, China appears to be persistent, patient, tactically flexible, willing to expend significant resources, and willing to absorb at least some amount of reputational and other costs that other countries might seek to impose on China in response to China's actions."
What's not so clear is whether Australia has anything of the sort of integrated strategy, or the focus and sense of enduring national interest, that China appears to have. China and the US are engaged in a trade war, one which threatens to get worse in the short term as Trump manoeuvres to get, or enforce, concessions from China in the lead-up to the elections. Trump has also significantly upped the ante in general belligerent talk about China, in threatening sanctions, in recommitment to alliances, including with Taiwan, and in blaming America's spectacular COVID-19 mismanagement on China rather than himself. China, which is said to prefer that Trump be re-elected on the basis that he is doing serious damage to the Western alliance system, is as openly irritated with the White House as it is when it swats Australian politicians baying for war. No one could be more aware than China that our dogs never actually nip at the heels.
Australia is at as much risk of becoming a collateral casualty of this trade war as it is of experiencing specific retaliation for its own antagonistic and quarrelsome attacks on China, not least by those which appear to presuppose that military conflict is inevitable, perhaps desirable, and maybe imminent. One can take it that newly published strategic assessments, increased and refocused defence spending and attempts to talk up the cyber war threat are rather more focused at Australian public opinion - and the maintenance of some sort of external crisis as a distraction from the economic slump - than they are of terrifying China to mend its ways. Of course, without much risk to itself, China can wage economic war against us more easily than it can mobilise the shipping and guaranteed lines of communication which could actually amount to some effort to conquer or seriously coerce or control us. Whether or not they expect that any confrontation would be with or without a significant American (or Japanese, or Indian, or Korean, French, British, Vietnamese or ASEAN) intervention, a good deal of the Australian baiting of China has the appearance of being from a very safe distance.
Right now that might support a political strategy - perhaps even one creating a sense of "crisis" and threat justifying an early trip to the polls before the economy worsens. It also bolsters an image of a "tough" Prime Minister standing up to international bullies. Whether the nation as a whole benefits from significantly lessening influence in Beijing, an increased impression that Australia is but an expensive American lapdog barking noisily but harmlessly from a safe distance, or a risk to our export trade is another matter. A case in point might be Hong Kong's fate. Honestly, are we now in a position to counsel China to be nice, or have we talked ourselves out of the room?
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times. firstname.lastname@example.org