After Beijing passed a new law curtailing freedom in Hong Kong, protests have again erupted in the territory. USIP’s Jacob Stokes says Hong Kong’s democracy poses a threat to Beijing’s legitimacy, and that if China “can’t produce enough economic growth … then that threat … becomes much more acute.”

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Olivier Knox: We're going to pivot to what is probably the biggest story in foreign policy right now, at this moment. There are there a bunch of contenders, but this is probably one of the biggest, Jake Stokes is senior policy analyst in the China program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He tweets @jacobstokes. We are talking, of course, about Hong Kong. Jake, welcome to the show.

Jacob Stokes: Thanks for having me.

Olivier Knox: It’s entirely my pleasure. As someone who tracks this professionally, how should people understand the confrontations that are going right now in Hong Kong and between Hong Kong and Beijing?

Jacob Stokes: Sure. The best way to understand it is that when Hong Kong was moved over from being a British colony to a Chinese autonomous territory in 1997, Hong Kong was given 50 years to retain its independent economic and political system under something that was called “one country, two systems.” Now over the interceding years, and increasingly in the last couple years, the government in Beijing has decided that they want to begin to erode those freedoms, and they did it slowly at first. But what we saw over the last week is that the parliament in the rubber stamp parliament, the fake parliament in Beijing, has passed a law that would basically give it sweeping powers to curtail freedoms in Hong Kong. And that comes after a year of large-scale protests against a bill that would have eroded freedoms in Hong Kong as well. So this is basically Beijing hitting back really hard and trying to take control over Hong Kong and the people of Hong Kong pushing back, seeking to maintain their freedoms. And that's really what’s at play here.

Olivier Knox: Jake, this is going to be a little bit convoluted, but I swear it's totally relevant, so bear with me. In George W. Bush’s book Decision Points, he reveals that whenever he met a world leader for the first time, he would ask them, “what keeps you up at night?” Now, that's the book I would have rather read than Decision Points: a list of the answers, cause it's really kind of revealing. Unfortunately, the only one that he gives us in the book is Hu Jintao. And Hu Jintao’s response to George W. Bush, to that question, is something along the lines of “I have to create 20 to 25 million jobs a year.” And Bush writes that this sort of changes his way of thinking about how Chinese leaders make policy. Recently, the Chinese government, the Chinese Communist Party, declined to set an economic prediction. How much of what they're doing in Hong Kong is Xi Jinping concerned about his standing at home, concerned about the economic situation at home, and turning to foreign policy, if not as a distraction, then sort of as a counter?

Jacob Stokes: Well for leaders in Beijing, the Chinese Communist Party, those things are interrelated, because the system in Hong Kong poses a threat to their legitimacy, because that's what a democratic political system would do, and their legitimacy that outside of political freedoms is based on creating economic growth and jobs. And so, basically if they can't produce enough economic growth and jobs, then that threat to the legitimacy that comes from Hong Kong, or as they see it comes from Hong Kong, becomes much more acute. And so, for them, it is a distraction, but they are kind of simultaneous or related threats to their political power.

Olivier Knox: I'm talking to Jake Stokes, senior policy analyst in the China program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Jake tweets @jacobstokes. The Chinese government has been pushing on a whole bunch of fronts recently, not even recently, I would say over the past couple of years we've seen them take some pretty aggressive steps where related to Taiwan, we've seen them, of course, continue with their operations in the South China Sea. Can you put the Hong Kong actions by Beijing into the broader context of China's operations abroad?

Jacob Stokes: Sure. Basically when the current general secretary of the communist party, China's leader, Xi Jinping, came into power in late 2012 and somewhat before that, but really when Xi came into power, there was a sense that China had sort of arrived, that it had reached a point of power and influence where it could begin to be more assertive, and in places even more aggressive, towards advancing its interests. Of course, you know China, you know, sees Taiwan as part of China. Obviously the same is true for Hong Kong and, as well, for the South China Sea. And so, for China, it's basically saying, “We are seeking, you know, we’re seeking to unify the country, all of the pieces of land that we see as part of the country. And we see it well within our right to do that.” Now it's not consistent with international law or, you know, much of it is not consistent with international law broadly, but that's basically what's happening.

Olivier Knox: Jake, recently, a think tank close to the Chinese communist party close to the government warned Chinese leaders that the handling of the novel coronavirus had created a potential for a global backlash like the one after the Tiananmen Square massacre. As we look at America's toolkit, the options for responding to what may, or I guess may not, unfold in Hong Kong, what are some of the options that Washington has should China proceed with what its stated plans are?

Jacob Stokes: Yeah, absolutely. Well, Congress actually passed, and the president signed into law last November, a piece of legislation called the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. And it did a few things. One of the things it did was allow the, or force the recertification every year of Hong Kong’s independent status as a territory, which gives it special rights on trade, on financial issues that in terms of separating it from the main land. So ,if the United States were to revoke that special status, that would have costs for China, which sort of in certain instances sort of launders things through Hong Kong. It's sort of technical, but it gives it financial advantages. So that would be one thing. The second thing would be allowing for sanctions on senior Chinese officials and officials in Hong Kong, the government in Hong Kong, which would, you know, make it harder for them to do business, do international transactions and to travel. So those are two of the major things. That would be, that are, that I know, are under active consideration.

Olivier Knox: Not to push you to irresponsibly speculate, Jake, but which of these seems more likely? I mean, the backdrop to some of this is that a revocation of special trade privileges would also have negative effects on Chinese economy, global economy, U.S. economy. And this is not really the time when, I would imagine, policymakers are eager to court those. And then the other, the other challenge, of course, is China views this as an internal matter. If the United States proceeded with sanctions on Chinese officials, might there not be a response from Beijing targeting American business there or American executives? They haven't been shy about doing that in the past, why would they hesitate now?

Jacob Stokes: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean those are certainly factors that, you know, decisionmakers in the White House are going to have to consider, you know, along with these decisions. I think it probably is more likely that you have sanctions on officials because that's seen as being more targeted. You know, whether that's the case in practice or not, whereas, you know, revoking Hong Kong’s independent status on some level recognizes that the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has failed. And you know, and would have, you know, trickle down effects on everyone that lives in the territory. And that wouldn't be the intention. But it would be, unfortunately, the effect, which is, I think, one of the reasons you haven't seen policymakers actually revoke that status yet: you can really only do it once. And you know, it's certain to see, you know, Chinese retaliation against U.S. firms, and they could get quite creative in that respect. But at the same time, you know, that's, we can't, you can't not choose a policy simply because someone could retaliate. You have to take that into consideration, but we have to, you know, be thinking through, you know, we can't also not do anything. So that's the balance that people are trying to strike.

Olivier Knox: All right. Jake Stokes is senior policy analyst at the China program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He tweets @jacobstokes. Jake, thanks so very much. I really appreciate it.

Jacob Stokes: Thanks for having me.


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