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Opinion / James Chambers

City blocked

Beijing rocked Hong Kong to its core last week, sidelining the local government and trampling all over the mini-constitution – but what happens next should come as no surprise. Communist party functionaries will pass the controversial new security bill into law, perhaps as early as next month, despite pro-democracy protests in the Legislative Council (pictured). This shows their scant regard for protests in Hong Kong and western condemnation.The text of the final legislation is irrelevant. Hong Kong’s ability to govern itself, guaranteed by a bilateral international treaty, has been unquestionably altered, so the focus should now turn to the response from London, Brussels and Washington. Do they accept this new normal and watch as pro-democracy activists get crushed under the impending crackdown or respond with something stronger than a bold statement? We won’t have to wait long to find out. The US state department is due to rule on whether the city remains sufficiently autonomous to maintain its special trading status or ought to be subjected to the same sanctions, restrictions and tariffs as the mainland.Congressional anti-China hawks in the US introduced the requirement last year to keep China honest about Hong Kong. However, six months later, Washington’s weapon might be about to backfire on tough-talking secretary of state Mike Pompeo and now China has backed him into a corner. If he continues trading with Hong Kong on the same terms the US looks weak; if he changes them unfavourably then everyone loses, most of all Hong Kong. The state department may try delaying again or fudging the ruling by giving Hong Kong a provisional pass on the condition that China drops the bill – but that would be naïve. Hong Kong is a domestic issue for Beijing and, unlike the trade war, there will be no backing down this time. As Covid-19 demonstrated, dealing with China requires a collective effort. The UK and the EU need to work with Washington on a united response for the next time Beijing abuses its powers. One country, two systems may be dead but the pain for Hong Kong is not over.

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