Opinion: No Crackdown in Hong Kong

by Marshall Wu
Staff Writer

When Hong Kong was returned to China by the end the of its lease to the United Kingdom in 1997, among the agreements made between the United Kingdom and China was a fifty-year guarantee of one country, two systems. After over one hundred years under British rule, today Hong Kong is uniquely part-Western and part-Chinese. It is no longer the same city it once was under Chinese emperors. This is apparent in a common viewpoint among Chinese today, who may find Hong Kongers ‘spoiled’. In dramatic difference from the city of Shenzhen, fewer than thirty minutes north, Hong Kong has truly become a dual-language populace. In Hong Kong, cab drivers speak English and street signs retain both Chinese and English spellings.

Hong Kongers’ identities have once again been called up for debate by a controversial extradition bill which has now since been withdrawn. Hong Kong’s duality in governance would formally end when one country, two systems expires, but its citizens may not want to accept it. For protesters, the fundamental question is not about the change of rules but about how Hong Kongers now find themselves as different from China. The debate goes beyond Hong Kong, and invites the world to weigh in: Has Hong Kong’s history under British rule created Hong Kong, the city-state, or can it re-embrace its Chinese history again? As long as Hong Kong looks across the river to the north and refuses China, there will always be room for conflict.

As the current protests have extended into their eighth month, Beijing may be considering harsher measures. However the feared Tiananmen-style crackdown, rolling armored vehicles and soldiers into streets, is an unlikely outcome now and in the future. Barring extreme circumstances, a bloody crackdown would be harmful to China’s long-term control of Hong Kong itself, as well as China’s international standing and its ambitions abroad.

While negotiating Hong Kong’s handoff between the United Kingdom and China, Deng Xiaoping stated to Margaret Thatcher that if he wanted, he could skip the negotiations and retake Hong Kong by force within a day. Thatcher responded with the plain and simple: The world would see for itself that the change in hands was marked by bloody transition. The British, formerly the imperialistic overlords would represent stability and peace while China would be condemned as belligerent. China could have taken Hong Kong without negotiating, but the issue was not about China’s physical possession of the city. Taking Hong Kong by force would have destroyed the city’s economic confidence, stability, and powerful international characteristic. Taking the city by force would have been somewhat a pyrrhic victory.

Thatcher’s response to Deng continues to be relevant today. Despite that China’s international stature has strengthened significantly since 1997, it may still be getting used to the discomfort of losing its former primacy where Middle Kingdom has become East. Today it must contend both with a city which at its core is not entirely Chinese and rejects Beijing’s rule and a world which would not respect the ugliness of a crackdown. Thatcher’s response was about what China could not control- unlike a time before British ownership of Hong Kong. The act of subduing Hong Kong by force today might similarly miss the point of what exactly China means to subdue. Is it in fact the protests themselves, or the beliefs which drive them?

Had Deng chose to bypass negotiations, the price China would pay for forgetting about the world was made simple in the outcome of Tiananmen in 1989. The diplomats and statesmen who went through the painful years of diplomatic isolation and international ostracization following the crackdown are alive today. When they consider dealing with Hong Kong, the cost of returning to that period is surely on their minds.

Many anticipated that China’s 70th anniversary celebrations would be the definitive end of Hong Kong’s months of protesting. Unsurprisingly, Beijing showed no move to silence protests even in the face of heightened protests on the day of anniversary. Assuming that Beijing was willing to risk punishment from around the world in exchange for Hong Kong was a dubious assumption. Many argued that China would obsess to have a clean stage to celebrate the 70th anniversary of its founding, yet neglected to consider what would be an incomparably worse setting had it decided to bring guns and tanks into Hong Kong’s streets. While Beijing is said to care about appearances, that would not make it unpragmatic. No matter how ugly the protests are to Beijing, in a digitalized, affluent, and multinational city such as Hong Kong, media of soldiers shooting would be incomparably worse in every measure. No amount of repression could prevent pictures, cameras, and reporters from bringing the shooting to front pages everywhere across the world.

On the contrary, any violent crackdown in Hong Kong could only lead China to lose it for the foreseeable future. In a city not yet subject to Chinese censorship, pictures and memories of China marching into Hong Kong would last forever. Organized and internet-savvy Hong Kongers would weaponize media of Chinese ‘attacks’ in ways only preventable through unrealistically high levels of political and internet repression. This is not to mention that repression going beyond physical force would violate what sovereignty Hong Kong has. Today Hong Kong sees itself as more than just a river away from the mainland. Rolling in troops from across the bridge is a contemptuous but tacit acknowledgement of their differences made clear for everyone to see.

A crackdown in Hong Kong has repercussions beyond the immediate area that go into China’s own international projects. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) goes beyond Asia and Middle East, some of its silk roads tying China all the way to Europe, the Arctic, and beyond. They currently intend to bind China to states between itself and the end of the silk roads in political, economic, and even social ways. If China wants its projects to succeed, it must become politically sensitive to these mixed group of countries ranging from autocracies to democracies. The message of the BRI coming from China is that of cooperation and prosperity.

Today the initial honeymoon period for the BRI is far past, and resistance to the project has started building.  Countries crucial to BRI such as India have already expressed significant reluctance over further cooperation: For starters, the infrastructure debt from the Belt and Road Initiative taken on has become highly suspicious to domestic populations no matter how much their national governments want the investments. In this current state of BRI, stunning on-the-fence BRI partners with heavy-handedness in Hong Kong is tantamount to Beijing calling it quits on BRI itself. China’s investments and efforts will have been wasted. To think that Hong Kong, whose GDP has already been surpassed by its quieter and more docile neighbor Shenzhen, would be worth harming China’s future ambitions for might only be possible if China were irrationally unpragmatic.

In summary, an aggressive crackdown would be counterproductive in nearly every way. Beijing may be said to care about face and stability when it comes to justifying suppression, however it is not unrealistic. Crushing protests may credit Beijing with neither. But more than that, the question is about Hong Kong’s beliefs, which are not something reducible by anything like a gun.

Photos courtesy of:

Guillaume Ferrante

The Closure of the WTO Appellate Body: The End of World Trade As We Know It?

by Pankhuri Prasad
Staff Writer

Is the world coming to an end? Hopefully not. But it could be the end of world trade as we have known it for the past two decades. During a course I took in the winter of 2018, my International Economics and Politics professor mentioned how the World Trade Organization (WTO) may face a severe crisis in the near future. At the time, the likelihood of such a crisis seemed low and distant. However, with the end of 2019 looming near, international trade is quickly heading into uncharted waters as the Appellate Body of the organization is facing extinction. The World Trade Organization (WTO) can be understood as the only global organization mediating nations by establishing the international rules of trade. At its core, the WTO is held up by the many multilateral agreements that are signed and negotiated by a majority of the world’s trading nations. The WTO is unique from other major international organizations because it yields effective enforcement through its dispute settlement mechanism. The dispute settlement mechanism, as the name suggests, is a system of solving disputes that may arise when one country or a group of countries believe that another country’s trade policies could be considered as a violation of WTO policies and principles. If the dispute cannot be settled through negotiations, an impartial panel of experts issue a ruling on the matter. 

The Appellate Body essentially acts as a supreme court and hears appeals about rulings issued by panels. This translates into a strong enforcement mechanism because the ruling goes into effect unless all WTO members vote unanimously to block the ruling. The defendant must then end the offending policy or pay compensation to the complainant. If no agreement can be reached on compensation, the injured party is authorized to impose retaliatory tariffs. Thus, this system differentiates the WTO from other international organizations because it imposes real economic consequences for flouting rules. 

As mentioned before, the Appellate Body may shut down at the end of this year. How did this happen? The answer is complicated. The immediate reason is that the United States vetoed the appointment of judges to such body. On December tenth of this year, two of the three remaining members will retire. Without them, the body will not be in quorum and will be forced to stop operations. The body typically consists of seven people but needs a minimum of three judges to hear cases and issue rulings. It is important to note that WTO panels will still be functional, but there will be no finality on issues since appeals to these decisions will be impossible.  

Why has the United States blocked appointments of judges? They have a long-standing list of complaints and criticisms of the WTO. Most importantly, the United States believes the Appellate Body has strayed away from its original mandate of a body that simply clarified existing rules. Instead, in many cases the system has been accused of “judicial activism”—taking decisions that are not grounded in preexisting rules of the organization. The reason for this is that the original rules of the WTO have seen almost no revision since the organization was created twenty-four years ago. Negotiations on new rules have been slow. The last round of negotiations started in 2001 and ended in failure in 2015. Other than asserting that the body is overly deliberative, the United States also believes the dispute mechanism process simply takes too much time. The 2019 Annual Report presented by the body showed that the average trade dispute takes about three and a half years, in total, before it is settled. 

How are other countries reacting to this? Canada and the European Union have agreed on a “shadow Appellate Body” that will operate similar to the current body. The United States expressed concern that other WTO members, including the European Union, are not as concerned about how the body has overstepped its jurisdiction. Although the Trump administration has been more assertive about the issue than other administrations, America’s grievances with the organization go back to President Obama’s term when his administration blocked the appointment of judges in 2016. 

The possibility of resolution seems low when there is disagreement among members on whether a problem exists or not with the dispute settlement mechanism itself. Furthermore, the United States has not signaled that it would be willing to lead reforms that might save the Appellate Body. Any leverage the White House might have will be substantially lowered once the body ceases to function in December. In fact, quite the opposite direction, as they are going from leading reform to threatening to block the passing of the international organization’s budget. 

Photograph of the second WTO Ministerial Conference which was held in Geneva, Switzerland in May of 1998.

What will this mean for world trade? Some have argued that dispute settlements should proceed as usual, only without America’s involvement, but that comes at the risk of ostracizing the system’s most frequent user. Disputes will still be decided by the panels. Without an appeals system however, the decisions could be used by countries to pressure trade rivals. Without a functional appeals system, international trade disputes could evolve into tit-for-tat tariff wars. Countries may feel emboldened to flout trade laws. 

There is no question that the WTO needs structural reform, but the United States will not lead this reform unless other countries concede that the international organization has overstepped its jurisdiction. This is yet another example of the country’s decreasing appreciation of international organizations. Earlier this year, the United Nations declared a cash crisis, partly due to lack of funding from its largest contributor, the United States. The question remains whether the economic hegemon sees these global regimes as worth saving. Do they see the WTO as vital to strengthening the global trading system and thus the American economy? The verdict is out. Meanwhile, what is certain is that global trade is entering a period of unprecedented uncertainties. 

Photos courtesy of:

Chutter Snap

World Trade Organization

Hong Kong: Caught Between Foreign Fires

by Rachel Chiang
Staff Writer

Hong Kong is in the midst of political mayhem. Decades-long concerns are emerging as Hong Kong goes through the most tumultuous period in recent history. What began as a series of protests against an extradition bill has metamorphosed into a widespread opposition movement to police brutality, Beijing, and government ineptness. The presence of violence and foreign intervention has had damning implications for economic advancement and societal stability.

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