Noah BarkinSenior Visiting Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, Berlin
Europe can and should respond more forcefully than it has so far. German Greens co-leader Annalena Baerbock has suggested that the EU—and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the host—cancel its looming summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Leipzig in September 2020 unless Beijing withdraws its national security legislation.
That would send a strong signal that it will not be business as usual as long as China is violating the spirit of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong.
Another step, which is reportedly being considered by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is to grant Hong Kong residents asylum in Europe. Germany welcomed two Hong Kong pro-democracy activists in 2019, so such a step would not be unprecedented.
In an environment where the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) faces global outcry over its handling of the new coronavirus, is under acute political and economic pressure from Washington, and needs foreign investors to help revive its suddenly sputtering economy, the EU has more leverage with Beijing than it has had in quite a while. Using it would help counter the narrative—following two embarrassing recent incidents of self-censorship in the face of pressure from Beijing—that Europe is impotent and weak when it comes to China.
Carl BildtCo-Chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations, Stockholm
This is an excellent opportunity to show that we—in spite of Brexit and all the mess it’s causing—can stand shoulder to shoulder with the UK on an important issue. It was the UK, then a member of the EU, that in 1984 signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration with China that Chris Patten, former European commissioner for external relations and the last British governor of Hong Kong, now says Beijing is violating.
I think Brussels should say to London that we are prepared to support whatever they—with their responsibility for the joint declaration—consider appropriate. And, following that, a contact group between concerned global actors could be set up to try to form joint policies and steps.
Brussels should offer London to take the lead—there might be cases in the future where we think it would be more natural the other way around.
Lizza BomassiDeputy Director of Carnegie Europe, Brussels
Unfortunately, this issue dredges up that age-old debate on values versus interests. From a values perspective, Europe should respond, but from an interests perspective, it probably won’t.
Certainly, some individual European member states may voice—even exert—some level of soft pressure, but its bark will be worse than its bite. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision on May 27 to remove Hong Kong’s special status under U.S. law was not an unsmart move, but it is a huge gamble. Will the United States or China blink first?
Economically, both stand to lose a great deal with a continued and escalating standoff, and Europe again will be caught in the middle. What may be Hong Kong’s saving grace is China’s desire—especially now—to curry favor and save face with the international community in the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
With the world watching, this will probably be enough to stave off any harsh crackdowns, but it won’t be sufficient to lead to the desired outcome that the people of Hong Kong are hoping for and deserve.
Ian BondDirector of Foreign Policy at the Centre for European Reform, London
The EU should certainly support Hong Kong’s continued legal autonomy in its public statements. It is important to let supporters of democracy in Hong Kong know that Europe has not forgotten them. But rhetoric will not dissuade the CCP from imposing tighter control on Hong Kong.
Having heard only ineffectual foreign protests when they imprisoned at least a million Uighurs in camps in China’s Xinjiang region, the Chinese authorities must think that the West will only wring its hands again over Hong Kong—particularly if the CCP can persuade Western businesses that it will protect their interests and that the new regulations will only affect a few inconvenient “extremists.”
The EU must consider how to change Beijing’s calculus. The message—privately at first, but publicly later, if necessary—should be that Hong Kong’s attractiveness to investors depends on the rule of law and not the rule of the party remaining supreme there. If that changes, businesses will draw their own conclusions, without any need for formal sanctions.
The EU should also do some contingency planning on how it could offer protection to threatened pro-democracy activists, including by offering them asylum in Europe, and it should strengthen ties with Taiwan, another democracy under threat from Beijing.
Katja DrinhausenAnalyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, Berlin
The Chinese government argues that its move to bypass Hong Kong’s Legislative Council to introduce national security legislation is a purely internal affair and necessary to restore order in Hong Kong.
But Hong Kong’s special status as an international financial and trade center is closely tied to the international treaties that helped establish a political and legal system distinct from that of the mainland. Europe needs to make clear that the special treatment of Hong Kong is contingent on the continued trust in the principle of “one country, two systems.” And that it is Europe’s prerogative to assess if it still wants to extend that trust.
China has brushed aside the joint declaration, which guarantees Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy until 2047, as a “historical document.” The European Union, its member states, and especially the UK should emphasize that China’s adherence to its international obligations will be the benchmark to assess its reliability as an international actor and trade partner.
As Hong Kong remains a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, European governments should monitor closely if the new national security legislation infringes on the civil liberties and the right to fair trial guaranteed by the treaty and should be ready to grant asylum to applicants from Hong Kong if it does.
Theresa FallonDirector of the Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies, Brussels
The uncomfortable truth is that business elites, European bureaucrats, and many European politicians are out of touch with the public’s sentiment on Hong Kong.
The EU’s anemic statement on Hong Kong is not going to keep anyone at Zhongnanhai, the seat of China’s leadership, awake at night. EU High Representative Josep Borrell didn’t even bother to tweet it. Beijing has taken Brussels’s measure and does not fear their statements, which declare that they “will continue to follow developments closely.”
There has been a concerning culture of complacency and self-censorship in EU diplomacy with the People’s Republic of China which has left the EU neutralized since 2016. If we turn to EU member states, the story is not much better. Merkel embraced trade with China in the hope that it would change China. But the reality is that contact with Beijing has eroded European values.
Beijing understands that economic issues are paramount. Few European leaders pretend to even care about basic human rights in Hong Kong, and it will be difficult to get unanimity on this issue across Europe due to Beijing’s economic statecraft.
To paraphrase Edmund Burke, all that is needed for Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” principle to perish is for good people to do nothing.
Geoff KitneyWriter and Commentator on Australian and International Affairs, Sydney
Australia expects the EU to respond very firmly to the Chinese government’s Hong Kong intervention, not least because Australia wants cover for its own strong response.
The increasing challenge posed by Chinese assertiveness is a mutual concern as relations with China become more complex.
Australia recently turned to the EU for diplomatic backing when it led calls for an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. China had reacted angrily to the Australian initiative, seeing it as a proxy for the United States. EU diplomats worked with their Australian counterparts at the World Health Assembly on May 18–19 to get agreement on a proposal acceptable to China.
But there has been a cost to Australia with China (by far Australia’s largest trading partner) canceling trade contracts worth €600 million. China’s actions in Hong Kong, with which Australia has both deep commercial and historic connections, puts news pressure on the relationship.
Australia wants to be a strong voice in the international pushback against China’s actions in Hong Kong but risks deepening Chinese anger, especially if it is seen as a U.S. patsy. Robust European pushback is essential to helping Australia balance its conflicting interests with China.
Philippe Le CorreNonresident Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Paris
With a conservative government in power like in 1984—when then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping agreed on the 1997 handover of Hong Kong—the UK should be the first to call for the full respect of the “one country, two systems” principle that guarantees Hong Kong’s independent judicial system for fifty years.
Instead, Boris Johnson is fighting a deadly pandemic, a dire economic situation, and a punishing negotiation with the EU about Brexit.
One of the most prominent British politicians to call for action following the announcement of China’s new national security law is the territory’s last British governor, Chris Patten, who calls the proposed bill a “complete destruction of the joint declaration.”
With Brexit looming, it is tempting for European leaders to dismiss Hong Kong as a British problem, but in fact Hong Kong’s international status should be a case for renewed EU-UK cooperation. After all, the region is home to some 80,000 Europeans. The EU should use all its powers to call for the respect of the Basic Law, which serves as Hong Kong’s constitution until 2047.
Both European Council President Charles Michel and Borrell have reaffirmed the EU’s values, and Michel insisted on the bloc’s attachment to “the preservation of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.”
It is time for the EU and UK to push for the preservation of Hong Kong.
John O’BrennanProfessor at Maynooth University and Jean Monnet Professor of European Integration, Dublin
The evolution of China’s foreign policy under Xi Jinping from a posture of “peaceful rise” to “wolf warrior” poses significant challenges for the EU. To parachute American historian Robert Kagan into the current geopolitical landscape, China is from Mars, Europeans from Venus, while the United States is lost in an even more remote galaxy of self-absorption.
More accurately, we should understand that Xi has firmly moved the dial on Chinese foreign policy from a Lockean to an increasingly Hobbesian framing of power. The EU is struggling to understand let alone respond to the scale of this challenge. If violence escalates in Hong Kong in the weeks to come (as is almost certain), there will be little from European capitals save empty rhetoric about respecting the Hong Kong Basic Law.
Europeans have been complacent in continuing to view China as overwhelmingly a Lockean power, a partner in the architecture of liberal trade and ever-deepening globalization dating back to former Chinese president Jiang Zemin, former U.S. president Bill Clinton, and former British prime minister Tony Blair.
EU leverage rests almost exclusively on trade. But Xi’s ambitions for China appear to go well beyond the restoration of the global trade regime that facilitated China’s “peaceful rise.”
Needless to say, the EU will need a reliable U.S. partner if it is to both reconstruct the global economic order in its own (still) liberal image and contain Chinese power.
Janka OertelDirector of the Asia Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, Berlin
The situation in Hong Kong has been progressively deteriorating, but the Chinese leadership’s decision to impose the controversial national security legislation now is taking developments to a new level.
Europe’s initial response has been timid. Yes, there are limited options left to reverse Beijing’s latest move, and yes, there is certainly a preoccupation with the battle against the coronavirus and its economic fallout on the home front, which complicates the overall situation. But decisive support for safeguarding civil rights and fundamental freedoms for Hong Kong’s people is never optional but an imperative—and it is not too late.
In a rare display of unity, the joint letter by more than 600 parliamentarians from countries across the Asia-Pacific, Europe, and North America across party lines calling out China’s breach of its international legal commitments is a positive example of speaking up against authoritarian overreach.
Beijing knows that its approach will come at a cost, but Europe can act jointly with like-minded partners to drive up the price.