If Huawei CFO Sabrina Meng Wanzhou isn’t safe from the US-China rivalry, then neither is Hong Kong’s trade status

  • Michael Chugani says the arrest of Huawei’s Sabrina Meng Wanzhou means officials need to think twice before further eroding political freedoms here and drawing Washington’s attention
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 December, 2018, 3:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 December, 2018, 7:02am

Now do you believe it when I say don’t put it past the United States to revoke the special trading status it grants Hong Kong? By going after top Huawei Technologies executive Sabrina Meng Wanzhou, President Donald Trump’s administration has shown even the unimaginable is possible in its virtual cold war with China for global dominance.

Meng, a daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, is considered corporate royalty in China. Yet Trump officials pressed Canada to arrest her for extradition to the US on alleged Iran sanctions violations even though they knew it would enrage Beijing.

What’s more, Meng’s arrest, while transiting Vancouver, came on the same day Trump had a sit-down with President Xi Jinping in Argentina to negotiate a trade war truce. If the US brazenly ignored the embarrassing timing, why would it hesitate to play rough with Hong Kong?

I’m not saying Congress will rescind our trade status any time soon, but many US lawmakers are now questioning why Hong Kong should get special customs treatment when they believe eroding freedoms have made it more like a mainland city.

Don’t forget the special status allows Hong Kong to import sensitive US technology. The US already suspects Hong Kong firms could re-export this technology to what it considers rogue regimes. Meng, who was granted bail yesterday, was arrested on suspicion that Huawei used a Hong Kong shell company to export US technology to Iran.

If Congress feels our freedoms are diminishing even further, it could give Trump an excuse to use Hong Kong as a chess piece should the Sino-US rivalry intensify. Control Risks, a global risk consultancy that advises policymakers and business leaders worldwide, believes the rivalry will indeed intensify.

It issued a report this week forecasting that a US policy of China containment is set to be the top global risk of 2019. Global Risks predicts that what started as a trade war will harden into a more permanent stance, making China containment a pillar of the new world order.

Is Hong Kong prepared to survive the new cold war?

We may already be seeing this with China’s arrest yesterday of ex-Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, which many believe was in retaliation for Meng’s arrest.

Yet our top officials, from Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor down, have lulled themselves into believing Hong Kong is too important to the US for Congress to strip us of our status as a separate customs territory from the mainland.

Huawei, Patrick Ho cases just more bargaining chips for Trump’s trade war

Which is more important to the US – China, the world’s second-largest economy, or puny Hong Kong? Yet Meng’s arrest and Trump’s trade war show he has no qualms about upending the world’s most crucial bilateral relationship in the high-stakes rivalry for global dominance.

If the US is really out to contain China, as Global Risks predicts, it makes Hong Kong fair game. That should worry our government. It needs to avoid giving any excuses for US lawmakers to target the city’s special trade status.

How Hong Kong can convince the US to maintain its special status

But right after a US congressional report suggested a reassessment of Hong Kong’s trade status because of diminishing freedoms here, the government blasted the report as interference in the city’s internal affairs. Two weeks later, the government disqualified opposition legislator Eddie Chu Hoi-dick as a candidate for a rural election. Any more disqualifications of opposition candidates in future elections will play right into the hands of China hawks in the US Congress.

I have said before I can understand Beijing’s fear that external forces could use Hong Kong to subvert the nation even though I believe the vast majority of Hongkongers are patriotic enough not to let that happen.

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But with Trump as US president, the world today is almost like an alternate universe. Who would have thought the US would put Meng through the embarrassment of handcuffs, prison garb and a bail hearing in a glass cage?

Please take me seriously when I say it’s not beyond imagination that the US Congress could target Hong Kong if it feels we no longer deserve special treatment, especially if there’s a fully fledged US-China cold war.

Michael Chugani is a Hong Kong journalist and TV show host