The Covid-19 pandemic created a window of opportunity that allowed China to introduce a national security law in Hong Kong and overreach in other areas, both internationally and domestically, experts said on Friday.
According to Susan Shirk, a former US deputy assistant secretary of state under Bill Clinton, Beijing took the decision to introduce the legislation despite risking “further alienating the general public in Hong Kong and the rest of the world”.
The move was made as Europe and the United States were preoccupied with combating the spread of the deadly pathogen and reviving their economies, she said at an online seminar organised by the University of Hong Kong (HKU).
David Arase, resident professor of international politics at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, said that “in some ways, the virus has been a catalyst for existing trends, accelerating by one or two years the deterioration of Hong Kong’s autonomy … and allowing China’s security agencies to openly operate in the city”.
Chen Zhiwu, director of the Asia Global Institute at HKU, said that the coronavirus – which has sickened more than 6.7 million people and claimed nearly 400,000 lives – had amplified many tendencies in China that existed before the pandemic started.
“We’re living in a very confusing world, with the leaders of the free world all doing things that seem to make the attractiveness of democracy go down. I think that has definitely contributed to the rise of the leadership style in China,” he said.
“We’re going to see Hong Kong’s autonomy and its role in the financial and trade world either reduced or eliminated,” he said.
“There is a big price tag China is paying and will pay as Hong Kong has always served as a very special buffer between the mainland and the world.”
China has been widely criticised for its initial handling of the coronavirus outbreak and there have been repeated calls for an independent investigation into its origin. Beijing has responded by highlighting its role in providing vital medical supplies around the world as the pathogen spread, while its diplomats have hit back with criticisms and accusations of their own.
Even before the pandemic, China was facing hostility over its actions in the South China Sea – 90 per cent of which it claims its own – and a nationalistic fervour has been steadily building momentum at home.
“It’s not just the United States that is fed up with China, but it’s China's overreaching in many different respects internationally and domestically,” Shirk said.
“And what overreaching means, of course, is that you go overboard, you go too far, you overplay your hand in a way that ends up being costly to yourself.”
The relationship between the US and China has deteriorated to its lowest level in decades, with some predicting a new Cold War between the two sides.
“This illness [Covid-19] just became grist for the mill and we have these two leaders, both very autocratic, both feeling defensive about their own performance, and it’s just been a perfect storm of negative effects on the ability of the two countries to cooperate,” Shirk said.
The White House last week released its latest strategy on China, describing it as “one of great power competition”.
Shirk said that under the Barack Obama administration, although China and the US were in competition they still found room to cooperate on common challenges like public health funding, climate change and nuclear proliferation.
But the relationship between the US and China now was at a “real tragic level of hostility”, she said.
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