Op-Ed:  China may be overplaying its hand in its crackdown on Hong Kong

Masked crowds on a street hold up their fingers during a demonstration
Democracy activists in Hong Kong took to the streets in July 2020 to protest the new national security law imposed by China. Since then, Chinese repression has increased.

(Vincent Yu / Associated Press)

The year has begun darkly for the people of Hong Kong. On Feb. 16, nine pro-democracy activists, including 82-year-old Martin Lee, the revered longtime leader of the city’s Democratic Party, went on trial facing charges of illegal assembly.

A week later, the Hong Kong government announced that it would enact a law allowing only “patriots” to serve on district councils, the lowest level of the city’s administrative apparatus, with responsibilities that include sanitation and traffic. This will probably result in the expulsion of democratically elected council members and the disqualification of future candidates deemed disloyal to the ruling Communist Party of China.

Then, on Feb. 28, in the most sweeping crackdown yet since China imposed a draconian national security law on the former British colony in July, the Hong Kong authorities charged 47 leaders of the city’s pro-democracy movement with “conspiracy to commit subversion” under the law. Because the law rigs the trial process to ensure conviction, these activists face the prospect of years in prison.


Several considerations may have prompted Chinese President Xi Jinping to escalate the repression in the semiautonomous territory. For starters, indications that the national security law has succeeded in instilling the rule of fear in the once-defiant city may be encouraging Xi to try to decapitate Hong Kong’s pro-democracy forces.

Moreover, the West’s response — until now limited to diplomatic denunciations and sanctions against a small number of senior Chinese and Hong Kong officials — to China’s imposition of the national security law has not really hurt the government in Beijing. Chinese leaders also appear to have drawn a line in dealing with President Biden: China’s sovereign prerogatives in Hong Kong and Xinjiang are nonnegotiable. China will do as it pleases in those places, despite Biden’s warning of “repercussions” for human rights abuses.

But Xi may have underestimated the costs of his actions in Hong Kong. This latest spate of prosecutions of pro-democracy activists, coupled with a lack of goodwill gestures from China to improve ties with the United States, will most probably harden Biden’s stance.

For the time being, the Biden administration wants to avoid a frontal collision with China, because it must first attend to domestic priorities such as tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and fostering economic recovery. As Biden’s advisors weigh the best approach to China, the Chinese Community Party’s intensifying crackdown in Hong Kong will undermine advocates of a more nuanced and less confrontational approach while vindicating those convinced that only a hard-line position can modify Chinese behavior.

When the 47 pro-democracy activists are convicted and sentenced to long prison terms, bilateral relations could resume their dangerous downward spiral. Chinese repression in Hong Kong will make it much easier for Biden to recruit wavering Western democracies as allies.

Currently, many European countries are hesitant about becoming full-fledged partners in a new U.S.-led anti-China coalition. Aside from their extensive commercial interests in China, they worry that an unrestrained U.S.-China geopolitical rivalry could plunge the world into a new cold war, disrupt and fragment the global economy, and doom any hope of combating climate change.


But European leaders ultimately must respond to voters, many of whom care deeply about human rights and are demanding tougher policies toward China. It will not be long before Germany and France, in particular, find it untenable to maintain a policy that relies on strategic neutrality to preserve their economic interests in China. When European democracies finally join the Biden administration’s anti-China coalition, the credit should go to Xi.

In the short term, the U.S. and its allies cannot easily undermine Chinese efforts to build Hong Kong into a financial center capable of rivaling New York and London. After all, financial sanctions, such as a ban on investing in companies listed there, would cause chaos in global markets. But they still have a wide array of other options to squeeze China.

Decoupling China from global technology supply chains currently seems inconceivable but could become a reality if the coalition agrees to a new arrangement similar to the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls, which choked off Western technology transfers to the Soviet bloc during the Cold War. Western democracies could also deny Chinese leaders the international prestige they seek by curtailing high-level exchanges and contesting Chinese influence in multilateral organizations. And sheltering victims of China’s crackdown in Hong Kong would be both a humanitarian gesture and a forceful rebuke of Chinese policy.

Chinese leaders are most likely aware of these consequences as they weigh their options in Hong Kong. They have settled on an ultra-hard-line course in the belief that its costs are bearable. Arguably, their gambit has paid off so far. But, by throwing down the gauntlet to the Biden administration and its allies, China may be overplaying its hand.

Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a nonresident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.