Turning to the Beijing side of the equation, all hope need not be lost. It is certainly true that much damage has been done to “one country, two systems” by Beijing’s harsh decision on what was required to restore stability and public order in Hong Kong. It will probably be hard for the people of Hong Kong (and anybody else) to distinguish between Beijing’s enforcement of the law and the retention of any “autonomy” for Hong Kong—not to mention the preservation of its “lifestyle” and “rights and freedoms,” as ostensibly guaranteed by the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 and the Basic Law.
But contrary to the prevailing narrative, the imposition of the national security law does not necessarily mean that CCP leaders have wholly abandoned “one country, two systems” or the electoral reform process in Hong Kong. This was not their goal in enacting the law. As noted earlier, the “universal suffrage” and national security issues have interacted but they retain some independence from each other. There arguably is still room for democracy advocates in Hong Kong and their foreign supporters to pursue progress on the former, while still seeking—or at least hoping for—something other than the worst-case scenario for the latter.
If Beijing wants to be believed when it asserts that it remains committed to “one country, two systems,” and that it will enforce the national security law only selectively to prevent violence and maintain stability, then it needs to show this concretely. CCP leaders must reaffirm and demonstrate what aspects of Hong Kong’s system and its autonomy will be sustained. They must allow peaceful protests that clearly do not advocate secession, subversion, or terrorism. And they must renew the process of electoral reform in accordance with their expressed commitment to the “ultimate aim” of universal suffrage.
This is where the United States needs to weigh carefully its response to the national security law. Washington’s declaration that Hong Kong no longer enjoys autonomy is arguably a rush to judgment, and thus premature. The Trump administration’s revocation of Hong Kong’s special status is unlikely to leverage or encourage Beijing itself to uphold and respect Hong Kong’s special status. More likely, it will undermine the leverage that either Hong Kong officials or the Hong Kong people have in pressing their case with Beijing. The United States should instead be pushing Beijing to validate its commitment to a “high degree of autonomy” for Hong Kong and a substantive version of “one country, two systems.” At the same time, Washington should also be encouraging Hong Kong’s democracy advocates to rationalize their near-term ambitions and expectations, and to recognize that they cannot expect Beijing to compromise on electoral reform if they won’t (or can’t, because of dissension within the movement), or if they resort to violence. Finally, Washington should be encouraging the HKSAR government to reinvigorate its efforts—through multi-sectoral dialogue—to address the social and economic challenges facing the people of Hong Kong.
This path obviously faces many challenges and limits, no guarantees, and almost certainly much skepticism. But it may be the most realistic path now available for salvaging Hong Kong’s uniqueness.
Paul Heer is a distinguished fellow at the Center for the National Interest and a non-resident senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia from 2007 to 2015. He is the author of Mr. X and the Pacific: George F. Kennan and American Policy in East Asia (Cornell University Press, 2018).