Despite US President Joe Biden and the first lady’s friendly greetings to those who celebrate the Chinese New Year a few days ago, which was targeted at Chinese Americans and Pacific Islanders living in the US, Biden has strategically sent the world a message that China and the US are building up their power bases as strategic rivals ̶ more so than ever, as their ideologies are just too different. No one can say for sure that a big confrontation between the two superpowers would happen. What people might be afraid of is that the US’s “strategic patience” would mean nothing much is happening, and the US won’t be looked up to as a strong defender of democracy.
Joe Biden was on CNN a few days ago, and in a short but well-prepared speech, he showed his concern about what had been going on in Hong Kong. Joe Biden and President Xi are “old friends” ̶ they had known each other for decades before they became presidents. Joe Biden also mentioned on the CBS network recently that he and Xi had around 24 to 25 hours of private meetings when he was the Vice President of the US, which was an official disclosure of how much time they spent together diplomatically on record.
The bigger question is that with a confrontational approach adopted by Trump and a strong condemnation made by former Secretary of State Pompeo of human rights abuses in communist China and ethnic genocide in Xinjiang right before he assumed office, how would the Biden administration confront China with regard to Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan, realistically and practically? What does “strategic patience” put forward by Biden actully mean?
Joe Biden and Xi are “old friends”, but Xi rose to power during the last decade. Xi is now not the man Biden once knew, which was Biden’s comment during the US presidential race last year. He even called Xi a “thug”. It is not difficult to understand that thugs go around beating and robbing people, and if Biden still believes that his “old friend” has changed so much for the worse, would he go tough on communist China?
Martin Lee, founding Chairman of the Democratic Party, and Anson Chan, former Chief Secretary of Hong Kong, met Joe Biden in April 2014, before Occupy Central and the Umbrella Movement, which took place in late September 2014 and turned into a 79-day occupy movement. As memories are still fresh, it should not be difficult for Joe Biden to recall Hong Kong being unique, and the people having striven for freedom and democracy for long in the once famed international city. Would the US champion the principles of freedom that are supposed to be universal for most people, while Hong Kong is under duress, and employ a more confrontational approach to China, indirectly salvaging Hong Kong from the worsening situation?
Less than a year ago during the 2020 US presidential election, Joe Biden said that if China tried to impose sanctions on American citizens and companies, he would impose “swift economic sanctions” on China, provided he was elected. Well said, whereas in Hong Kong, the latest news is that the sale of the US Consulate’s USD330 million real estate property in Shouson Hill finally got approved by the Hong Kong government under the permission from Beijing. One way to look at it is that US Government’s USD330 finally got released. And now, the US has a bigger gift to China: a more tolerant approach to Confucius Institutes’ operations at US universities and high schools. Under the Trump administration, the Confucius Institute was perceived as covert influence operations designed to sway Americans in favor of being positive towards China, and Trump tried to ban all of its operations in the US. We all know that Trump lost the second term of his presidency, and under the Biden administration, the US will make more concessions to China.
Back to the Hong Kong issue. On Jan 6, 2021, 55 pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong were arrested but granted bail eventually. It has been one of the biggest crackdowns on Hong Kong’s democracy since the Handover in 1997. All got released except one, but all have to report to the police on a regular basis. All their passports were confiscated, which means they are not free to leave Hong Kong. One who got arrested was John Clancey, an American human rights lawyer who has been living in Hong Kong for decades. Would he and the other 54 be charged with attempting to “overthrow” the government under the highly controversial National Security Law (NSL), while what they did was merely to run their own primaries?
Will the US intervene more in regard to Hong Kong for its strong economic interests in the city? What if a major US investment banking CEO based in Hong Kong is arrested and detained, and alleged to be breaking the NSL of the HK SAR? We all know by now that the NSL proffers Beijing and the puppet government in Hong Kong unfettered power to detain anyone before trial. If the strategic patience said by Biden means the US turning a blind eye to what is happening in Hong Kong and being a bystander, then hopes for democracy in Hong Kong will be gone, and the rule of law in the city will be replaced 100% by the rule of law with Chinese characteristic ̶ no one is protected and secure.
It is important to re-iterate that Hong Kong people did try to sensibly reason out solutions with communist China before and after Xi rising to power. The pro-democracy finance community wrote to Xi on April 23, 2014, to show concerns about Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” not being able to sustain, if the core values of Hong Kong under constant attack, and interference from Beijing. Here is the synopsis of the “10 Requests to the Communist Party by the HK pro-democracy business and finance community” that was drawn up in the Obama- Biden era, and caught some attention regionally and internationally:
We, as finance professionals in Hong Kong, have full confidence in the future of Hong Kong and hope that the city will remain firmly in its position as an international financial center. We hope the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party will heed the following 10 requests which reflect the voice of Hong Kong people, specifically that of the finance and banking industry:
1) Fulfill the promises made in the Sino-British Joint Declaration by fully supporting “one country two systems”. Allow Hong Kong people to rule Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy, and refrain from interfering in the administrative affairs of Hong Kong.
2) Establish a system of genuine universal suffrage that conforms to international standards, and recognize that this is the political freedom that all the people in Hong Kong seek. To implement the principle of “one country, two systems”, the Central Government must accord the Hong Kong Government with high degree of autonomy and recognize its legitimacy.
3) Defend Hong Kong’s freedom of speech, the press, assembly, religion, creation, and all kinds of freedoms enshrined in the Basic Law and relevant international conventions.
4) Allow Hong Kong to continue to operate under a fair, just, and open business environment. Prevent monopoly by persons or organizations of special privilege in various industries.
5) Empower the Hong Kong Government to set policies independently, including but not limited to policies relating to immigration, naturalization and travel entry to advance the city’s long-term interests. Maintain and enhance Hong Kong’s position in the international finance community so that it retains its competitive edge in attracting high quality professionals and talents from all over the world and from various industries and sectors.
6) Safeguard the spirit of the rule of law and judicial independence.
7) Protect and respect the freedom of the press and empower the public and the media to the right to monitor and critically challenge the Hong Kong government and its policies.
8) Understand Hong Kong’s unique historical background and preserve Hong Kong’s uniqueness as a melting pot of Eastern and Western cultures.
9) Safeguard Hong Kong’s reputation for maintaining a strong anti-corruption culture in government and business. Eliminate all perception and possibility of growth of a bribery culture, and put considerable effort into anti-corruption policies and campaign in China which can only have a positive impact on Hong Kong’s status in the global economy.
10) Create and facilitate universal suffrage for Hong Kong which can be leveraged as a blueprint for democratic elections in China to advance China’s progress toward democracy.
The “10 Requests to the Communist Party by the Hong Kong pro-democracy business and finance sector” was one meaningful project but lost momentum ̶ Beijing ultimately wouldn’t give a genuine “two systems” to Hong Kong. The very mild business and finance sectors raised their concerns about Hong Kong’s autonomy in 2014 and 2015, without much progress; and now the NSL has given rise to human capital and assets fleeing Hong Kong. What is the fate of Hong Kong, when all else has failed? Hong Kong is in a big crisis: it needs more local and international supporters or else Hong Kong will not be Hong Kong anymore.
(Edward Chin (錢志健) runs a family office. Chin was formerly Country Head of a UK publicly listed hedge fund, the largest of its kind measured by asset under management. Outside the hedge funds space, Chin is Convenor of 2047 Hong Kong Monitor and a Senior Advisor of Reporters Without Borders (RSF, HK & Macau). Chin studied speech communication at the University of Minnesota, and received his MBA from the University of Toronto. Twitter: edwardckchin Youtube: Ed Chin Channel Facebook.com/edckchin Email: email@example.com)
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