Trump won’t spare Hong Kong in his anti-China agenda so Carrie Lam had better start working on a Plan B
- Michael Chugani says the Hong Kong chief executive does not seem to grasp the seriousness of the situation in her reaction to a critical US congressional report
- If the US chooses to use Hong Kong as a chess piece in its trade war against China, and removes its special trading status, the city will be severely hit
China-bashing reached new heights in the US Congress after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. I saw it upfront as a Washington correspondent in the 1990s. But even though the hostility – driven by disgust at the bloodshed – was bipartisan, it had a bottom line.
Most Democrats and many Republicans were against granting favourable trading status to China. But every time Congress tried to downgrade China’s trade status during the presidencies of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, there either weren’t enough votes to pass it or to override a presidential veto after passage.
Back then, the White House and enough lawmakers from both sides felt punitive trade measures were not an effective tool to retaliate against China’s human rights behaviour. Does that bottom line still exist? If it does, no one seems to know where it lies with Donald Trump as president.
Trump couldn’t care less about Beijing’s human rights record but has made reversing America’s huge trade deficit with China a top priority. Add his trade hostility towards China to his dogged resistance to President Xi Jinping’s determination for China to replace the US as the dominant superpower and what we, in effect, have is a cold war.
As such, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor should understand the real possibility that the US could use the city as a chess piece in its efforts to thwart China from becoming the pre-eminent global power. Her dismissive reaction to a bipartisan congressional report highly critical of Hong Kong’s eroding freedoms suggests she doesn't understand the precarious position we are in.
The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission said Hong Kong’s diminishing freedoms and closer integration with the mainland had “negative implications” for US interests. It recommended reassessing treating Hong Kong as a separate customs territory from the mainland. This special status has largely shielded Hong Kong from the trade war and has allowed it access to some US technology that could be used for military or civilian purposes.
Stripping Hong Kong of this status will rock the city to its core. It will instantly become just another Chinese city with its global value greatly diminished. But instead of reacting with concern to the report, or at least offering to explain the Hong Kong situation directly to US lawmakers, Lam and her aides blasted the commission for interfering in Hong Kong’s internal affairs, language Beijing always uses.
How is the US interfering when it voluntarily chose to gift Hong Kong special customs status in recognition of the fact that the city’s free society made it different from mainland China? Hong Kong doesn’t have an unquestioned right to this status. If the US believes our freedoms are diminishing, it has every right to take away what it has given us.
Instead of defiantly branding the report as interference, the government needs to understand that even though Trump’s divisiveness has poisoned US politics like never before, the one thing that both Republicans and Democrats fully endorse is his stance on China.
There is bipartisan unity not only in support of Trump’s China trade policy but also his policies on the South China Sea, which China claims belongs almost entirely to it, and his determination to prevent Beijing drawing smaller neighbours into its sphere of influence.
Now that the Democrats have regained control of the House of Representatives and with Nancy Pelosi, a caustic China critic, the likely speaker, we can expect congressional criticism to escalate if lawmakers believe Hong Kong’s freedoms are being progressively eroded.
Lam risks being too complacent by believing the US would never strip Hong Kong of its special status because doing so would hurt American companies here. She fails to understand Trump is a mercurial leader. If he feels he can score points in his battle with China for global dominance by hurting Hong Kong, don’t put it past him to do just that because he has no bottom lines.
Michael Chugani is a Hong Kong journalist and TV show host