As China and the US embark on a cold war, Hong Kong must prepare to face a brave new world

  • Michael Chugani says Hong Kong doesn’t have a choice in which side it will take in the cold war between the US and China, but it must plan for a changed reality
  • The US has historically granted Hong Kong special status, but this might not continue as the conflict intensifies
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 October, 2018, 3:06pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 October, 2018, 9:26pm

Which side will freedom-loving Hong Kong choose if and when the US-China trade war that is now raging escalates into a cold war?

China is a communist state ruled by the increasingly authoritarian President Xi Jinping. The US is a democracy governed by President Donald Trump, who has authoritarian tendencies. Hong Kong is a free society with cherished democratic institutions. That is why the US Congress passed the US-Hong Kong Policy Act ahead of the 1997 handover to help protect the city’s special status after its reunification with a communist state.

Hong Kong will naturally have to stand with China if and when a cold war starts with the US. There can be no illusions that “one country, two systems” allows Hong Kong a choice on such a sensitive political issue, especially after Beijing equated self-determination with independence.

But even though it will have no choice but to stand with the motherland, which side will the hearts of Hong Kong people be on? Will they, out of loyalty, root for a new global order with a communist state as the world leader? Or will Hongkongers secretly hope the US will triumph out of fear that if China replaces the US as the dominant global superpower, nothing will hold it back from further tightening its grip on Hong Kong?

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A recent global survey by the Pew Research Centre found that the vast majority of the countries polled preferred the US over China as world leader. Neither mainland China nor Hong Kong were included in the survey but if Hong Kong had been included, would it have chosen the US or China as the world’s dominant superpower?

You may think that such questions are hypothetical, that Hongkongers will never have to face them since many experts dismiss the notion of a new cold war.

The last cold war was a classic ideological struggle between the US-led West and the Soviet Union. It pitched an alliance of democracies against a Russian-led bloc of communist countries, some of which were forced into the fold through Russian occupation.

As the argument goes, a new cold war is hypothetical since China has not formed an ideological alliance, has not occupied any countries, is capitalist in many ways even though it is a communist state, and is deeply knitted into the global economy. But those who make such arguments assume that all cold wars are fought along the same lines. There has only been one cold war in modern history. No rule books say another is only possible if the same characteristics as the previous one exist.

Despite the general consensus that we are not in a cold war yet, I believe we are already in the first stages of such a conflict between Trump’s America and Xi’s China. Unlike the previous one, this is more about strategic than ideological dominance.

Xi has used key policy speeches to spell out, at times clearly and at times cryptically, his vision of China dominating the world economically, technologically and in influence. Initiatives such as the Belt and Road and the Greater Bay Area are intended to achieve that. He has not said much about China dominating the world militarily as well. But actions often speak louder than words. China’s relentless military build-up of hi-tech weapons speaks for itself.

Watch: Xi Jinping’s vision for China’s place in the world

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Trump has minced no words in saying he regards China’s global ambitions and military assertiveness as a threat to America’s global dominance. He has shown in words and deeds that he intends to make sure the US remains the top superpower.

I don’t know if the assertiveness of Trump and Xi will lead to a military conflict but it sure smacks of a cold war.

What will it mean for democratic Hong Kong to side with its communist motherland? Will the US Congress strip Hong Kong of its special status? Will we be counted as part of China in the trade war? It’s something Hong Kong needs to think about unless Trump suddenly makes nice with Xi again.

Michael Chugani is a Hong Kong journalist and TV show host