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Hong Kong should not be left to die

The world can still China's behavior toward its freedom-loving territory

Police detain protesters on July 1 in Hong Kong, one day after China enacted a national security law that cracks down on protests in the territory.   © AP

TOKYO -- Hong Kong, Asia's financial hub, is having a near-death experience. The national security law imposed by mainland China is already robbing the city of its accustomed freedoms.

On July 1, the day after the law came into force, 10 protesters, including a number who took to the streets bearing pro-independence flags were arrested under the new law.

The law is vague on exactly what actions are illegal under its provisions. But it is already having an effect: Books about democracy activists have been pulled from library shelves. Schools have barred students from singing songs that feature in pro-democracy demonstrations.

Hong Kong reverted to China in 1997 as Deng Xiaoping, the country's then-leader, gave assurances in 1984 to Britain, the colonial power, that the "one-country, two systems" guaranteeing Hong Kong's freedoms would be preserved for 50 years after the takeover. It is obvious that China has broken that promise.

If the current situation continues, residents and foreign businesses will face serious threats and the role of the city as a financial hub, the source of its prosperity, will surely dwindle. That will cast a shadow over Asia's growth as a whole.

What can the international community do to avoid this grim future? Unfortunately, the options are limited. Hong Kong is part of China and the territory relies heavily on the mainland, even for such basics as its water supply.

In 1956, during the Cold War, Hungary was part of the Soviet bloc. That year Hungarians rose up, seeking democracy. Yet the Western nations, which loudly preached the value of freedom, did nothing when Soviet forces invaded to crush the uprising. That failure should not be repeated.

There are things the West can do for Hong Kong. If forcing China to scrap its national security law is too difficult, it is still possible to pressure the authorities in Beijing not to implement the law in a heavy-handed manner.

Such pressure has worked before. In 2013, China abruptly established an air-defense identification zone in the East China Sea, obliging foreign aircraft in the area to follow orders from China's Defense Ministry. Beijing threatened to take immediate action if planes in the zone refused its orders. But faced with strong protests from many countries, "China refrained from rigorous enforcement of the rule, and it continues to do so, although it has not abolished the zone," said a Japanese government official.

While it is true that an air-defense identification zone cannot be equated to Hong Kong, the case underscores that even a country as powerful as China cannot completely ignore the international opinion in implementing a law.

"It is important for foreign governments and observers to maintain focus over the medium term and not forget about Hong Kong," said Kurt Tong, former U.S. consul general to Hong Kong. "They should be consistent and express their concern in each instance that China will hurt Hong Kong by enforcing the national security law too strictly," adding, "Such efforts may not compel China to scrap the law, but a consistent focus can have an impact over time on how the law is enforced."

Unity among the Group of Seven big industrial countries is crucial to influence China's behavior. The G-7 foreign ministers issued a statement on June 17 expressing grave concern over China's intervention in Hong Kong.

The joint statement was intentionally timed to coincide with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's meeting with Chinese Communist Party Politburo member Yang Jiechi in Hawaii. According to diplomatic sources, Pompeo told Yang that the G-7 had just issued a statement as evidence of the world's concern. He pressed Yang on the issue, urging that the mainland shift its stance.

But a rift is developing in the G-7 due to Brexit and friction between the U.S. and Europe. China is eager to exploit such divisions and will try to drive a wedge between Japan, Germany and France on the one hand, and the more hawkish U.S. and U.K. on the other.

Just before it approved the national security law, Beijing is said to have put out confidential feelers to Japan, Germany and France, among others, about its content. It did not do so for the U.S. and the U.K. Western nations and Japan must be wary of Beijing's divide-and-conquer tactics.

To extract concessions, it is also vital that the West pushes for specific improvements to the law, rather than making abstract demands. The priority should be to have China narrow the overly broad scope of the law to minimize the potential for abuses. At present, for example, damaging public transport during demonstrations is classified as terrorism, and merely calling for other countries to impose sanctions against China or Hong Kong is considered collusion.

More surprisingly, the law applies to acts concerning Hong Kong committed by people not living in the city. "The law's provisions are highly ambiguous regarding what constitutes illegality," said Yuji Miyamoto, a former Japanese ambassador to China. "For instance, it is not clear what constitutes acts harmful to national security. It is important to call on China to restrict enforcement of the law, clarify the details of the law and enhance its transparency," Miyamoto said.

Hong Kong's economy was nearly a fifth as large as all of China at the time its return to mainland; now it accounts for less than 3% of the total. The value of its economic output is already smaller than that of Beijing, Shanghai or Shenzhen. This has led the Communist Party leadership to conclude it can tighten the screws on Hong Kong without serious economic consequences.

But with its population aging rapidly, China's economic growth will slow in the years to come. "China may think that Hong Kong's economic value has declined. But, when China's economic growth inevitably slows down in the future, it may be forced to reassess Hong Kong's value," said Tong, the former U.S. consul general.

"Hong Kong is a golden egg for China. I'd like to think that China won't crush it," one anxious Hong Kong told me on June 30, 1997, the day Britain handed the territory back to China. But if Beijing continues down its current road, rather than a golden egg Hong Kong will be a stain on China's international reputation.

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