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1 April 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 3:46pm

“Practically no effect”: The minimal impact of sanctions over Hong Kong

Even as exiled activities fight to keep democratic hopes alive, China’s crackdown on autonomy continues apace.

On Tuesday, Chinese leaders ruled in favour of a plan designed to ensure that only “patriots” can take up positions of power in Hong Kong. Under these new reforms, the share of directly elected representatives in the legislature will be nearly halved and an opaque committee to pre-approve candidates before they can run for office will be created; effectively ending free elections in the former British colony, activists and experts say. 

The overhaul marks the most significant set of government reforms since the city’s handover from Britain to China in 1997 and follows months of escalating crackdowns on the city’s pro-democracy movement. These began after mass protests broke out in 2019, then hardened last summer following the Chinese Communist Party’s introduction of a broad and ambiguously-defined national security law. Almost every prominent pro-democracy activist is now either behind bars, in exile, awaiting trial or sentencing.

Both the United Kingdom and the United States have since released yet further statements of condemnation. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on Tuesday declared the reforms a “clear breach” of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that promised a high degree of local autonomy to Hong Kong people. Last month, Raab also accused Beijing of multiple breaches and “ongoing non-compliance” with the legal agreement, while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken vowed to “follow through on sanctions” against “those responsible for committing repressive acts”. 

In the face of mounting allegations, Beijing has hit back by urging foreign governments to keep out of China’s internal affairs. On Wednesday, officials in Beijing and Hong Kong separately issued statements insisting that human rights are protected in the city and rejecting an annual human rights report, recently released by the US, that accused the CCP of systematically dismantling Hong Kong’s political rights last year.

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The issue of Hong Kong has thus become a political impasse – one that political experts told me foreign governments have little room to manoeuvre on, yet must appear to address in order to appease domestic constituencies. 

On 31 January, the UK launched a pathway for Hong Kongers to obtain British citizenship through the British National Overseas (BNO) Passport visa scheme, one of various “lifeboat” measures being implemented by several nations including Taiwan, Canada and Australia. Although the visa scheme has been met with gratitude, community leaders in the UK have called out the government for failing to prepare for the new arrivals.

[See also: How the UK’s Hong Kong visa offer could still fail refugees]

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Meanwhile, the US has imposed sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials over the continuing crackdown, and last year began paring back the city’s special trade status by restricting access to high technology products and halting defence exports. 

Critics have argued, however, that such economic policies only hurt businesses and consumers, and have accused the previous Trump administration of using Hong Kong to escalate the US-China rivalry. (In August 2020, Britain also halted its military training arrangement with the Hong Kong Police Force.)

Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute, told me that sanctions and measures taken against Hong Kong officials will have “practically no effect on policies” because orders come from Beijing, and if they come from Chinese president Xi Jinping they “cannot be changed”. 

“You also have to think about (whether) it will harm people in Hong Kong who are interested in sustaining rights and freedoms for as long as possible,” Tsang said, giving the status of the city’s independent judiciary as one example.

While Tsang praised citizenship-pathway offers made by the UK and other governments, he noted that they do little to help those who remain in the city: “Sanctuary schemes give people a way out, but they can’t actually change the politics in Hong Kong.

“It’s easy to openly condemn China on Hong Kong policy. It’s good political theatre,” Tsang said. “But then what?”

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Not all are as sceptical as Tsang, however, about the impact of foreign sanctions and schemes. A growing number of Hong Kong overseas activists are lobbying foreign governments to take further action, ranging from additional sanctions to trade policies that make countries less reliant on China.

One such activist is Ted Hui, a 38-year-old former Hong Kong lawmaker who is now seeking asylum in Australia after facing charges under the national security law. Along with seven other overseas exiles, Hui launched a charter last month advocating for democracy and autonomy in the city.

“I don’t buy the saying that there’s little foreign governments can do. Sanctions itself is a strong statement – it’s a gesture that free countries are joining hands together. They’ve picked the freedom camp, on the freedom side, not the authoritarian government side,” Hui said, adding that he believes such measures can change Beijing’s behaviour in the long run. “It’s a signal that it cannot benefit from international treaties, from international relations, if it doesn’t live up to the promises it made.”

Other overseas activists, such as the UK chapter of the global activist group Stand with Hong Kong, have argued that Hong Kong migrants will also become a sizeable electoral force in their respective new homes. The group hopes the UK government will build a long-term strategy to address Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong, a spokesperson said. 

Yet some are also wary of attempts to use migrants as a “chesspiece” for certain political agendas, and are concerned about intra-Chinese community conflict that is already brewing between supporters and critics of the CCP’s policies in Hong Kong, according to another UK-based activist.

In Hong Kong, the future of political resistance will increasingly depend on small-scale actions by individuals, according to pro-democracy activists. The electoral overhaul marks a significant shake-up even for those who support Beijing’s reforms, with pro-establishment politicians admitting that they need to do more to reach out to alienated opposition supporters, the South China Morning Post reports.

Peace (not their real name), a 23-year-old activist still in Hong Kong who spoke to me over an encrypted messaging app, said that pro-democracy activists who want to work within the system are at a loss over what to do next: “Of course, we hope more things can be done. But it’s actually just a hope.” From Peace’s point of view, sanctions will not do much to help Hong Kong people, yet he feels gratitude for sanctuary schemes, and plans to move to Taiwan this summer.

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Sanction showdowns exposed further escalating tensions between Beijing and Western governments. Tsang said China’s “disproportionate” reactions to the recent sanctions over atrocities in Xinjiang “speak to a mindset” in which Beijing increasingly chooses to take actions with little regard for the political fallout from foreign nations. Nor does it seem as if foreign condemnations of the ongoing crackdowns have held much sway: on Thursday 1 April, seven veteran pro-democracy leaders were found guilty of unauthorized assembly, a verdict supporters see as yet another example of the ongoing suppression of human rights.

For activists in Hong Kong and abroad, the avenues for political resistance and change are rapidly shrinking. Yet such actions still play a role in keeping hope alive, activists and scholars say.

“[Exiles] keep the issue alive in the consciousness of citizens in these democratic countries,” Tsang adds. “If that goes away, there will be less attention on Hong Kong, less assistance for people who may need a sanctuary. This is important.”

Jessie Lau is a writer and journalist from Hong Kong covering identity, human rights and politics. She tweets @_laujessie

[See also: What I learnt from the Hong Kong refugee who came to stay]