It is hard to guess which bête noire annoys the Chinese Communist party more — Donald Trump or the majority of Hong Kong’s electorate who regularly vote for pro-democracy candidates in local elections.
In the party’s eyes, the US president is an unpredictable and untrustworthy adversary but also an adversary who thinks he is acting in the best interests of his country. The majority of people in Hong Kong are something far worse than that. They are Chinese nationals who refuse to acknowledge that party and country are one and the same, and bitterly resent the former’s encroachments on “the high degree of autonomy” Hong Kong is supposed to enjoy.
On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents — possibly more than a million — marched in opposition to an extradition bill that would for the first time allow anyone in the territory to be sent to China if wanted there for certain crimes. On Wednesday, thousands more gathered at Hong Kong’s legislature to try to stop lawmakers debating the bill, which is due to go for a final vote on June 20.
Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive, Carrie Lam, is insistent that the extradition bill was her own idea, not Beijing’s.
A former high-ranking Hong Kong official says he believes Ms Lam. In all his years of government service, he told the Financial Times, “not once did I hear my mainland counterparts talk about the need for extradition”.
“It’s not Beijing’s initiative,” he added, but rather a “total misjudgment on the Hong Kong government’s part”.
Most people in Hong Kong, however, find it hard to believe that Ms Lam brought this crisis upon herself with no help whatsoever from Beijing — in large part because of the increasingly heavy-handed way in which President Xi Jinping’s administration has asserted its authority over Hong Kong.
In 2016, China’s National People’s Congress issued a legal ruling that paved the way for the expulsion of six pro-democracy figures from the territory’s legislature, further cementing Beijing’s grip on a body already packed with pro-China lawmakers.
Also in 2016, a Chinese billionaire was spirited out of Hong Kong by mainland police and has not been seen since. Xiao Jianhua’s disappearance came just months after five Hong Kong booksellers, whose sometimes scandalous tomes focused on top Chinese leaders, were similarly “renditioned” to face the wrath of China’s justice system.
Passage of the extradition bill will be seen as a further signal of Mr Xi’s disregard for Hong Kong public opinion when it comes to an increasing number of “redline” issues his administration believes are related to sovereignty.
Communist party officials have no problem when it comes to sending such signals. But in the case of the extradition bill, they could yet end up regretting what they wished for.
The wild card in this instance is, once again, Mr Trump. Last month the US president upended what Chinese officials thought was a done trade deal. Then in his search for more trade-talks leverage, he moved to deny Huawei, China’s leading manufacturer of 5G telecommunications equipment, access to critical American components and technologies.
Under the terms of the US-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, Washington continues to treat the territory as a distinct customs, commercial and tax jurisdiction relative to China. Any move by the Trump administration to repeal this distinction could be disastrous for Hong Kong even though it is, as Simon Pritchard at Gavekal Research notes, “a paradigm of what [the US] still hopes to see one day across the border” in terms of the free flow of capital, goods and services.
But as Chinese officials have discovered over the past year, nothing is sacred to the US president when it comes to collecting chips that he thinks he can cash in during the course of a negotiation. If anyone is willing to turn the screws on Hong Kong as they are now being turned on Huawei, it is Mr Trump.