Shortly after China confirmed it would bypass Hong Kong’s legislature to impose new security legislation, the media tycoon and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai tweeted that his home, a former British colony straining to avoid the heavy hand of mainland rule, had become “like Berlin of the last Cold War.” Unfortunately for Lai and other liberals in the territory, he’s probably wrong about that. If there is a parallel to draw, it may well be with Russia’s more recent decision to annex Crimea from Ukraine.
As with President Vladimir Putin’s démarche, made during a period of political upheaval in Kiev and with the 2014 Winter Olympics still under way nearby in Sochi, President Xi Jinping’s move was both opportunistic in its timing and strategic in its goal. Hong Kong’s formidable pro-democracy protesters were further weakened by Covid-19, reducing the risk of mass opposition to a move that would bring China’s full unification under Beijing’s control a step closer. And like Putin, Xi took that decision knowing that it might poison relations with the West for years. The actual text of the security law has yet to be drafted. Officials have sought to reassure the business community that Hong Kong would retain its freedoms, and softer wording could minimize objections from abroad. But as Chinese diplomats troll the U.S. over its race riots, Xi no longer appears to greatly care.
The circumstances of Hong Kong are of course different from both Crimea and Berlin, not least because China’s sovereignty is undisputed. The People’s Republic has also refrained from sending in extra troops to Hong Kong (a People’s Liberation Army garrison has been there since before the protests began).
China has been growing less patient and more assertive in its dealings with the rest of the world, starting even before Xi came to power in 2012. The Trump administration, meanwhile, declared Beijing a “strategic competitor” in its first national security doctrine in 2017 and launched a trade war the following year. Still, Beijing’s change of approach in Hong Kong marks a shift that’s worrying for China’s neighbors and for Europe, all caught in the midst of a rapidly growing superpower rivalry. It’s a movie they’ve seen before with Russia, one that doesn’t end with Beijing buckling before a triumphant West.
21,188 in U.S.Most new cases today
-10% Change in MSCI World Index of global stocks since Wuhan lockdown, Jan. 23
-1.081 Change in U.S. treasury bond yield since Wuhan lockdown, Jan. 23
-4.8% Global GDP Tracker (annualized), April
“China, at least in Europe, was until now seen as a more responsible and predictable actor than Russia,” says Bruno Macaes, a former secretary of state for European affairs in Portugal and author of two books on China’s rise, including The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order. Xi’s decision to ignore Western complaints in Hong Kong, combined with the emergence of aggressive so-called wolf-warrior diplomacy since the spread of Covid-19 this year, suggests that distinction is disappearing. “This is kind of a Crimea moment for China,” says Macaes.
The similarity lies in China’s approach, according to Lai, who hopes the U.S. will recognize the change in Beijing and mobilize to counter any encroachment on Hong Kong’s self-rule with the same determination it displayed in 1948, when Stalin sought to bring all of allied occupied Berlin under Soviet control. If the U.S. and other international powers fail to stand up to Xi over Hong Kong now, then Taiwan and other U.S. interests in Asia will soon fall to Beijing’s domination, says Lai, speaking in a phone interview from Hong Kong, where he is executive director of Next Digital Ltd., a media conglomerate that owns the Apple Daily newspaper. President Harry Truman ordered a massive airlift to counter the Soviet blockade of West Berlin, drawing a clear red line against further Soviet expansion in Europe.
Like the old Cold War, the new U.S.-China contest is one of opposing values, according to Lai. He says Hong Kong’s liberals are natural U.S. allies in that fight and could provide a bridgehead to disseminate their common values among mainland Chinese, even persuading them to rise up against the Communist Party regime. By contrast, the party “would take this opportunity to attack Taiwan, if they think the U.S. is not strong willed enough to hold against China,” Lai says. “The hegemony of the U.S. in Asia would be fully discredited.”
The difficulty for Lai and other westward-looking liberals in Hong Kong is that, as in Ukraine, the U.S. threat of war that eventually forced Stalin to abandon his blockade of Berlin isn’t credible today. There are no U.S. troops on the ground; and there will be no Seventh Cavalry. More likely the U.S. will impose sanctions and restrict visas for certain Chinese officials, just as they did for Russia after Putin annexed Crimea. Those measures inflicted pain on Russia’s economy and formalized an increasingly hostile relationship with the West that has yet to improve. But it didn’t persuade Putin to reverse his policy. The experience is informing apprehension in Europe over how events will unfold with China. Given a global pandemic and strained transatlantic ties, Trump may find coordinating an international response a lot harder than Obama did six years ago.
If Xi can’t be talked out of forcing Beijing’s laws on Hong Kong, the West will again be powerless to stop him and forced to fall back on mutually damaging sanctions, according to Jean-Maurice Ripert, a former French ambassador to China. “The risk would be a situation similar to Crimea,” he says.
For Xi and the Chinese leadership, imposing their will on the world’s largest offshore financial center was a political necessity. Like previous generations of Communist leaders in Beijing, Xi has staked the ruling party’s legitimacy in large part on its ability to deliver the promise of “national rejuvenation,” after what the party refers to as a century of humiliation by Western powers. That period began with the first Opium War of 1839-42, in which a defeated China was forced to cede Hong Kong to Britain. A whole wing of the national museum in Beijing is devoted to telling the story of those colonial humiliations and the Communist Party’s heroic success in reversing them since 1949. The permanent exhibition, opened in 2011 and since updated to reflect achievements after Xi came to power in 2012, is called “Road to Rejuvenation.”
Any perceived threat to the party’s claim over Hong Kong is seen as a direct affront to those national goals, a fact that helps to explain Beijing’s insistence that last year’s pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong were driven by foreign powers. “No matter how much screaming, kicking, and barking the U.S. government wants to perform, no one in the world can change Hong Kong’s status as part of China,” says Gao Zhikai, a former Chinese diplomat and interpreter for Deng Xiaoping, the leader who oversaw negotiations with Britain for the island’s return. The eventual 1997 agreement with Britain required Hong Kong’s legislature to adopt laws prohibiting treason, secession, sedition, foreign interference, and subversion against the central government—something it never did because of disputes between the pro- and anti-Beijing factions in the territory’s legislature. “No one should pretend to be surprised that China has the legitimacy and power” to force the issue, says Gao.
Challenges to the Communist Party’s authority pose a particular problem for Xi, who has made displays of strength a defining feature of his rule. These have included the creation of mass “re-education camps” for the country’s Muslim Uighur minority in the far Western region of Xinjiang, cracking down on personal and media freedoms more widely, and militarizing reclaimed reefs in the South China Sea. But when mass protests broke out in Hong Kong in 2014 and again last year, Xi found himself without the legal powers to stop them, even as they became violent and protesters openly questioned the party’s authority over the city. Public anger in mainland China over the party’s initial failure to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus, amplified enthusiastically by Trump, have since combined with a sharp economic slowdown to make those political pressures acute. As many as 130 million people were either out of work or furloughed in the first quarter.
Daniel Russell, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, sees Xi’s fulfillment of a domestically popular mission to unify the motherland as one of several echoes of Russia’s 2014 move on Crimea. The “muscular assertion of sovereign power at a moment of weakness at home” is another. Putin had been struggling with low approval ratings since returning to power two years before and could ill afford to appear weak, after losing a struggle to keep the pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych in power in Russia’s neighbor and former colony, Ukraine. He, too, accused the U.S. of engineering the pro-democracy protests in Kiev that brought about Yanukovych’s fall.
The final echo of Xi’s Hong Kong move is that “like Crimea, it is a step that no other country is strong enough to reverse,” according to Russell, now vice president for international security and diplomacy at the New York-based Asia Society Institute. Congress and the Trump administration are considering sanctions.
To be sure, there are enormous differences between Crimea and Hong Kong. To begin with, Putin had to annex the Black Sea peninsula and, as far as the vast majority of governments around the world are concerned, it remains legally a part of Ukraine. China’s ownership of Hong Kong was settled in 1984. The later agreement with Britain that created the island’s basic law guaranteed China would honor a “one-country-two-systems” formula for 50 years, until 2047. It’s the alleged violation of that principle that many in Hong Kong oppose.
The territory is also much less happy about being absorbed by a larger neighbor than was Crimea’s majority ethnic Russian population. And the economic stakes are vastly higher, given Hong Kong’s status as a global financial center that has long acted as a gateway for foreign investment—as well as recycled capital flight—into China. That helps explain why the government in Beijing has been hesitant to crack down hard on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement until now: Doing so could jeopardize the perception of judicial independence that has made the island attractive to foreign banks and companies. Yet, with Hong Kong’s economic weight relative to the mainland declining, and the Trump administration already trying to decrease economic interaction between China and the U.S., Xi appears to have decided there was less to lose internationally than to gain domestically by playing hardball.
“They used to absolutely prioritize economic growth and until at least mid-2010 had been avoiding any conflict with the West,” says Vasily Kashin, a senior research fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Far Eastern Studies. Though skeptical of the Crimea analogy, Kashin says the authorities in Beijing were now “showing that they are ready to move decisively; that was inevitable, because the U.S. decided to escalate fast in trying to stop China’s rise, and China had to be respond.”
In Kashin’s unsentimental view of Hong Kong’s plight, the city has already served its usefulness to the U.S.—not as a bridgehead or ally, but as a discreditor of China’s “one-country-two-systems” policy. Images of Hong Kong police clashing with protesters last year hardened Taiwanese opinions enough against Beijing that the pro-independence President Tsai Ing-Wen won reelection in January, after looking like a lame duck. Whereas Crimea’s takeover was a setback for the U.S., signaling its inability to prevent the first annexation of territory in Europe since World War II and with that the end of the old world order, China’s move to impose its will on Hong Kong is a net U.S. gain, according to Kashin. “It can be used for building public opinion against China in Taiwan and elsewhere,” he says.
Lai isn’t giving up hope. In his view, Crimea was indeed a completely different case, but only because Russia—with a gross domestic product less than a tenth the size of the U.S.’s in current dollar terms—didn’t matter enough to the U.S. administration or people. With President Barack Obama in the White House, the U.S. also had a president who was “too much a gentleman” to do what it took to stop Putin. By contrast, China is now America’s “archenemy,” its economy either already bigger than the U.S.’s or soon to overtake it, depending on the measure used. Plus, the American public is angry over the loss of life and jobs caused by Covid-19, which the current U.S. president has called the “Chinese virus.” “Maybe with Trump it will be different,” says Lai. “Trump plays hardball, too.” —With Ania Nussbaum
Read next: Trump’s China Trade War Tactics Are Smart and Dumb