The semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong has been witnessing protests for several months now and the rumble is showing no signs of dying down. The problem is that China is very assertive about Hong Kong’s situation and has warned US from meddling in its internal affairs.
The protests started in June over plans to allow extradition to mainland China, a move which will be used against dissidents and pro-democracy activists. The former British colony has more autonomy under the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement and people have more rights than mainland Communist-ruled China.
Attempts by China to revoke these rights saw widespread protests which have become increasingly violent as police and activists clash with each other. Police have fired live bullets and students have thrown petrol bombs in disguise, forcing a ban on face masks to put in place. The bill was eventually withdrawn in September but demonstrations still continue demanding full democracy and inquiry into police actions.
President Trump has shown support for the pro-democracy protesters but stopped short of saying that he would sign legislation requiring sanctions on China for any crackdown against the protesters. US Congress last week passed a bill that calls for stripping Hong Kong of its preferential trade status if China revokes the freedoms guaranteed when Beijing took over two decades back.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has warned against separatism, saying that there will be repercussions for any attempts to divide China. The city held local elections in which democratic candidates secured an overwhelming victory among record voter turnout. This has forced Hong Kong leaders, particularly chief executive Carrie Lam, who has Beijing’s support, to listen to public opinion reflecting dissatisfaction with the current situation and the deep-rooted problems in society.
There is also no let up in US-China trade war and a deal between the two countries is less likely. Trump is confident that the long-negotiated trade deal is potentially close but may not be reached until next year. The US presidential elections are less than a year away, impeachment proceedings are looming, and reluctance of the Trump administration to work with foreign countries has dimmed hopes of any breakthrough.
The US wants a trade deal but also can’t turn a blind eye to Hong Kong’s protests. The issue is beyond just a trade conflict and shows a greater geopolitical rivalry at play. US policy wizard Henry Kissinger has said that we are still in the foothills of a Cold War, even thought US-China rivalry is not at the same level as with the Soviet Union. It seems that US will exploit the situation in Hong Kong against China as its global clout fades away.