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Yale 62

Under the Cover of COVID
Is Hong Kong’s autonomy to be torn asunder?
Is ‘One Country, Two Systems” now a catchphrase for the past?

Hong Kong aerial view

By William Stork

Hong Kong politics is entering a potentially perilous time, as the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be abating while the protests of 2019 return. A controversial new interpretation of the Basic Law1 says the Chinese Central Government’s Liaison Office and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office have the right to “supervise” local affairs. Several well-known pro-democracy figures, fifteen in total, have just been arrested for their role in protest rallies over ten months ago; if convicted that would prevent them from running in the forthcoming elections. And all this, ‘coincidentally,’ is happening against the backdrop of those planned Legislative Council (LegCo) elections, soon to come in September.

The U.S. is now about to put into effect the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 20192.

Chris Patten, perhaps best known as the last Governor of Hong Kong, arriving in 1992 and serving for the five years leading up to the handover to China in 1997, recently wrote a letter to the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office urging vigilance about any future attempts by Beijing to undermine Hong Kong’s rule of law and the electoral process. Both of these actions drew outrage from Beijing, accusing both of meddling in China’s internal affair: “a gross interference and a violation of international law.”

Here, now, is that ‘fine line’ about diplomacy! It is the role of diplomacy for one nation to influence the actions of other nations or bodies; it is not permitted for one nation to interfere with the internal affairs of another nation.

The U.S. says it has the right to influence Hong Kong affairs due to its massive investment in this, China’s major financial hub. Great Britain maintains its right to also ‘influence’ is based on that original 1989 Sino-British Treaty that set the groundwork for “One Country; Two Systems” and the Basic Law, which serves as Hong Kong’s mini-constitution (and one that promised universal suffrage, ten years after the transition in 1997).
It will be interesting to see how this all plays out, as HK is in such a fundamental financial position in Asia for both the US and for China.3

Will the protests resume once physical distancing is relaxed?

Yes, this has already happened — on Mother’s Day — at many of the major malls in Hong Kong. At the heart of matter was Beijing’s promise to allow Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years when it regained sovereignty over the city in 1997, and which has formed the basis of the territory’s special status under U.S. law. Protesters say freedoms have been steadily been eroded. Those 1 May protests were widespread and well-populated.

The HK govt has yet to find a way to deal with constructive dialogue to ease the local tensions, and continues to only use a Beijing-approved technique – send in the police. Much controversy occurred after these recent 1 May events, as the police handled the situations in very unprofessional ways — for which the police chief has just apologized.

Why are the forthcoming elections for the Legislative Council (LegCo) so important?

Since there is yet not universal suffrage here for the Chief Executive, the ranks of the CE nominating/selection committee is based in part on those elected to the District Councils and to LegCo. In the recent summer District Council elections, the pan-democrats won all but two seats in all of the councils, and this has enhanced their ranks in the forthcoming nominating/selection committee positions.

This could be greatly enhanced were the pan-democrats able to follow up on this electoral gain by doing likewise in the September LegCo elections. [All polls show that the pan-democrats vs the pro-Beijing establishment parties stand at 60-40.]

Yes. This is the one major reason why Beijing is so worried.

And the resumed protests and the huge post-COVID economic downturn are ancillary concerns that add much to the fact that the Hong Kong Chief Executive, one that Beijing is ‘required’ to support, is having such a difficulty in being a leader.4

These renewed protests will cause Beijing to ratchet up its efforts at suppression, and it has already called for the ‘complete eradication of the black shirts’ and has even called for HK to revise its education curriculum so to eliminate or curtail ‘liberal studies,’ courses that provide for student discussion of various political ideas. As an educator, yes, I am concerned.

But, as indicated, there is so much more at play!

Let me know your thoughts on any or all of the above. We in HK are in a critical juncture.


1. The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China is a national law of China that serves as the de facto constitution of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.[1][2] Comprising nine chapters, 160 articles and three annexes, the Basic Law was adopted on 4 April 1990 by the Seventh National People’s Congress and signed by President Yang Shangkun.
Article 22 of the Basic Law states that “no department of the Central People’s Government and no province, autonomous region, or municipality directly under the Central Government may interfere in the affairs which the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region administers on its own in accordance with this Law.” However in April 2020, after Democratic legislators had challenged the Liaison Office for its overt criticism of the pan-democrats’ conduct in the Legislative Council, the Chinese government department declared itself not subject to that part of the Basic Law.

2. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 (HKHRDA) (S. 1838; Pub.L. 116–76) is a United States federal law that requires the U.S. government to impose sanctions against China and Hong Kong officials responsible for human rights abuses in Hong Kong, and requires the United States Department of State and other agencies to conduct an annual review to determine whether changes in Hong Kong’s political status (its relationship with mainland China) justify changing the unique, favorable trade relations between the U.S. and Hong Kong. The passage of the bill was supported by pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, and in 2019 received near-unanimous support in Congress.

3. Hong Kong’s Trade Status: – Reuters reports:
From a business perspective, one of the most important elements of Hong Kong’s special status has been that it is considered a separate customs and trading zone from China.
That has meant, for instance, that trade-war tariffs don’t apply to exports from Hong Kong.
According to the State Department, 85,000 U.S. citizens lived in Hong Kong in 2018 and more than 1,300 U.S. companies operate there, including nearly every major U.S. financial firm.
The territory is a major destination for U.S. legal and accounting services and in 2018 the largest U.S. bilateral trade-in-goods surplus was with Hong Kong at $31.1 billion.

4. Despite Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s dilatory response initially to the Covid concerns, especially about closing the borders, the efforts of the government since then have been exemplary, enhanced by followed advice from the universities’ virologists. Of especial note has been the quarantine effort for new arrivals, and the extremely effective effort at ‘contact tracing’. In almost four weeks, only one local COVID-infection announced.


We invite your comments.

8 comments to Under the Cover of COVID

  • Roman L Weil

    I have taught in HK off and on for a decade and have seen property rights there erode gradually, with prospects for improvement getting worse. I don’t expect Bill to tell us what he’s doing to protect his own wealth. If I had spent my adult life in HK, I’d be getting my wealth out of there fast and furiously. Diplomacy might delay the takeover a bit, but not until 2047, maybe not even until 2024. I just looked at a real estate price index for HK and see prices down over the last several months. We have the confounding events of Covid-19 and active Chinese interference in HK, but whatever, now is the time to lighten up one’s HK investments. If not already too late.

    For those not in the know about such: All land in HK belongs, I think, to China. The expensive real estate’s value comes from leases that expire in 2047. Many of the residents of HK can’t go anywhere else but to China, so their wealth is stuck there. The likes of Bill have the option to leave and to take some wealth with them. I don’t see how that wealth can increase in value.

    • Thank you for your comments and concern, Roman. I have, all my working life, been a secondary school educator and wealth has not been a prime factor for me – though I have been successful with property purchases. Being retired now for a decade does cause one to look to preserving what’s left, of course, and I thank you for your suggestions.
      It hasn’t quite been that property rights are eroding, but certainly property values have, commensurate with the economic downturn first caused by the six months of political protests and the dramatic drop in tourism. And then came Covid. And now we have the efforts of Beijing to direct the course of the Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region (HKSAR) whose Chief Executive seems ineffective. There is a good bit of political chaos continuing, which has been in the news the past two days, today being 19 May 2020.
      You are correct, that the HKSAR (and thus perhaps China) owns all the land [except for the Anglican Cathedral!] and leases are generally for 999 years or 99 years. Where there has been some confusion relates to the date you mention of 2047, when the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ expires, due to the original Sino-British Treaty. Were one to make a property purchase here now, would a 30-year mortgage still be valid after 2047? It seems it would.
      As for people here being able to leave, yes, that is possible, and to countries other than China. Malaysia offer a very attractive package for retirees, as does Thailand. A bit more difficult is Taiwan, but that is possible. Many that were born here before the transition in 1997 applied for and were issued UK(BNO) passports that have retained validity for return to Great Britain (and perhaps Commonwealth nations). But I am told that the easiest resettlement is to Canada. We have explored all of these. But it is hard for us to consider any such travel during this time of pandemic, and we are comfortable in the home we have purchased here, one that is holding its value.
      So, for wealth management, I am no expert! But in January as the economic clouds began to appear, gold was advised, and that turns out to have been good advice. Warren Buffet says that it is a good time to buy and, locally, such stocks as ‘HSBC’ are at low ebb but will at least double in value in the next two years. Property-purchases in China have proved successful in the past two years, and these are continuing to increase in value. I have no sense or worry that there would be any governmental action here that would appropriate my liquid capital in the local HKSAR banks.
      Again, Roman, I thank you for your ‘alert’, and I hope that some of this might ease your concerns.

      Stay well, Stay safe, Stay positive, Stay home!

  • Charles Merlis

    Many years ago, Around Nixon, the US Abandoned Taiwan and increasingly has conceded the area around China to the (Communist) dictatorship. What counts is not law or international diplomacy but the whim of Xi or whoever is in power in China. The only leash is if they fear a mass uprising by the population which is a leash that they would probably reinforce rather than release. Only a revolution in China ill prevent an eventual clash with China and the US. Though China is more dangerous than Russia for the long haul, in the short run, Trump is subservient to Putin, While McConnell is Xi’s bitch (though not as pathetic as Donald).There is no rule of law in China, it is rule of Dictatorship. Trump is trying to emulate that through Barr, Pompeo,and holding himself above the law. I know there are protrumpers in our class, but Don’t you care that he is anti checks and balances, getting rid of any Inspector General that doesn’t whitewash him or those loyal to him, etc. Trump appears to increasing the signs of senility which is not necessarily a quick process. Those of our class, who may be descending into it, should recognize some of its features, especially if they experienced it with their parents. Does anyone really defend Trump, respect him, and hope he gets reelected? Sorry Bill, about the fall of Hong Kong, the only hope is independence and that is not in the cards.

    • Hi Charles!
      Thank you for reading and commenting, and I hope that you have also read my earlier article about dealing with Covid and the importance of maintaining good mental health during a period of physical distancing restrictions. One of the ‘successes’ of those restrictions here in Hong Kong is that (until recently, this being 20 May) there has been a resulting political calm.
      Yet here in the HKSAR divisions still exist, similar to those seen in other populations, and I personally am keeping a much better mental health by staying positive and trying to stay above the fray! Que sera sera ! My wise mother told me (often!) to avoid talking about religion, politics and ‘sex’ (for which she used a now-forgotten euphemism), and this has served to make discourse more positive! Where I do get excited is by the new approach that Y62 classmate Bob Rosenkranz’s Intelligence Squared has taken by now going virtual. The upcoming debate is on the resolution ‘The Electoral College has outlived its usefulness”, with a great pair of debaters on each side of the issue. Interesting format, if you haven’t participated before. Participants vote twice, once before and then once after the debate – and it is interesting to see how the debate has changed people’s minds (or not). I can send you the link if interested.
      As for the future of ‘autonomy’ in the HKSAR, I think that is a foregone conclusion beyond the influence of any political leaders. But despite tariff wars and vocal harangues, I firmly believe that while the autonomy will be increasingly restricted, life here will go on much as before … for this major Asian economic hub is just too valuable to all parties for anyone to do anything too drastic.
      In closing I would like to recommend two books, both by Yale professors and both that have been on the NYTimes best-seller list: first, Political Tribes and the Fate of Nations and second, On Tyrrany. Both are very readable and enjoyable, and for each the chapters seem to stand alone, so one doesn’t need to read constantly over a long period of time, as with a novel.

      Thanks again for commenting, Charles. Stay safe, Stay well, Stay positive!

  • Ken Merkey

    Is it possible to have an intellectual conversation without some never-Trumper getting his knickers all in a twist? Does anyone really believe that Hillary (or Bill) could have done a better job managing this pandemic? One thing we do know is, that were she elected, the Clinton Foundation would be one of the largest repositories on earth. What did Obama accomplish with China? For that matter, every administration since WW 2 has been kicking the China can down the road. Truman did the world no favor when he allowed the partitioning of Korea.

    I am not a big Trump fan. He is a New York bully but he sure beats the alternative. I am surprised that he has accomplished so much while enduring these phony investigations and the impeachment. Someone has had to reveal the deep state and all of its deleterious effects.

    I lived in Singapore for 3 years. I can speak from experience that the best way to manage Chinese citizens is to leave them alone. They have shown that they can build a nation without any outside assistance or natural resources. I don’t have an answer for how we contain China. But contain them we must and it is going to take a stronger person than some socialist progressive going around the world kissing butts (or molesting women).

  • As you might have seen in/on the ‘news’, this is when the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Peoples’ Consultative Congress are having their delayed meetings.

    AND HERE IS THE BREAKING NEWS! [It being 21 May 2020 here in Hong Kong]


    Beijing will introduce a draft resolution to allow the National People’s Congress to chart legislation for a new national security law tailor-made for Hong Kong that will “proscribe secessionist and subversive activity, foreign interference and terrorism in the city”, sources have told a Hong Kong reporter.
    As my article indicated, Beijing has been somewhat stymied by the inability of their chosen Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, to lead forward, both in response to the six months of increasingly violent anti-government protests (noted in my earlier ‘Hong Kong Hot’ articles), yet also with her dilatory response to the virus-crisis, when it came, especially w.r.t. closing the HK borders.
    The PRC now sees that they do need to act unilaterally. Since the Legislative Council (LegCo) is in deadlock, Beijing thus feels IT now needs to step in, especially NOW before the LegCo elections in September that might elect even more pan-democrat members.
    As Beijing sees it, if Hong Kong’s LegCo can’t/won’t authorize the Anti-Subversion laws suggested in Article 23 of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, The Basic Law, then Beijing needs to step in and do so, in the form of an Annex to The Basic Law, for which they are given the right so to do.

    This legislative draft is due to be presented in Beijing on Friday!


    You can just imagine what this effort will do ‘the autonomy of the Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region’ (HKSAR) and to “One Country, Two Systems”, as mentioned in my article.

    Yet, before this causes any concern/rancor/outrage by those in USA, please go back and look at my final paragraphs to my reply to Mr Merlis.


    Here’s an update on Hong Kong! [thanks for staying with me!]

    IMHO, the HKSAR, now that physical distancing restrictions are increasingly relaxed, will revert to pre-Covid levels. We will again see mass protests, of increasing levels of violence on the part of police and of the activists; a hoped-for return of previous levels of mainland tourist coming to HKSAR for better quality luxury goods just will not happen, there are better and cheaper options at home; as the restrictions on tourists from other countries will continue to require quarantine isolation, Hong Kong’s major carrier Cathay Pacific will continue to have ‘negative growth’ and tourism, about 40% of the HKSAR’s ‘income’ will evaporate.
    Unfortunately the HKSAR govt doesn’t even know efficient and efficacious ways of distributing the monies set aside for helping small businesses, individuals and others. Unfortunately the economic depression here will continue; with that bureaucratic quagmire much possible positive recovery time has now been lost.

    Stay tuned! But stay healthy, stay safe, but stay positive!

  • David Scharff

    Hi Bill
    So upsetting to see the evolving news that echoes my colleagues throughout the mainland on the increasing repression and the limits growing on speech. So sad to see HK being dragged into the net. Hope you are well as you watch this unfold.
    David Scharff


      My good friend David! Thank you for your message and your concern.

      We in Hong Kong (as is much of those in the concerned media and various governments) are all venturing into the ‘unknown’ at a time when protests and Covid-19 have given a one-two punch that have wracked both the economy and friendly socializing. Much of this can be viewed in my recent article “Whether” Report – HK 1 July 2020

      Here in Hong Kong many are waiting to see what new measures are to be put in place and what international responses might be, as well as China’s follow-up responses.

      My personal opinion is that a good deal of posturing is going on!
      As mentioned at our panel on CHINA RISING at the 50th reunion, one of my comments was to the effect that China is strongly moving to reassert itself in what they see as their historical global leadership position. President Xi does not hide his desire to ‘rejuvenate China’, which does much to explain their “Belt and Road” program with foreign countries; the efforts to expand the shoals in the South China Sea into islands, now with military bases and runways and — it is alleged — with land-to-sea missile batteries; and the conflict with India over an isolated piece of land in the Himalayas. This is also amplified by increased covert support for Kim Il Jung and by the recent naval manoeuvres in the South China Sea. China’s relationship with Australia has soured.
      For its part, the US president continues to use ‘bashing China’ in his political rhetoric mostly focused on blame for the spread of Covid-19. The once-apparent thaw, signalled by the first round of the trade talks, now seems dead. Statements such as those by Secretary of State Mike Pompous about China killing democracy in Hong Kong only leads to outrage from China that the US is meddling in China’s internal affairs and increases the tensions in Hong Kong itself. The recent legislation seems more to be put in place to appease a domestic audience than to put any pressure on China (which it won’t). Should the US withdraw its support for Hong Kong’s financial independence, it will hurt Hong Kong but really won’t have much impact on Beijing. (Taiwan remains an indeterminant but perhaps volatile factor for both countries.)

      So, what HAS been happening?

      A Beijing-appointed hardliner has been put in charge of Hong Kong’s new Security Bureau.

      The ‘cause’ for enacting the new security legislation was somewhat amplified during the 1 July holiday banned-protest march when an activist stabbed a police officer with a knife. The very bloody sight was a bit terrifying, and the suspect was arrested before an evening flight to UK embarked. Interestingly, the police followed protocol and asked permission to come onto the tarmac to make the apprehension. Bail has been refused. The new law mandates life in prison for terrorism, the charge that he has received

      Other aspects of ‘usual practice’ have yet to be followed, most notably the absence of an official English language version of the new security law. In Hong Kong, both English and Chinese are official languages, and all legislation should have official versions in each, as some judges are not proficient in Chinese and confusion could result.

      Zheng Yanxiong, known for his hard line approach to handling protests in Guangdong, will head Beijing’s office in Hong Kong while Luo Huining will act as Carrie Lam’s national security adviser. The
      country’s top legislative body could make more laws for the city to safeguard national security in the future, senior official says.

      Libraries have been culling their shelves of books written by pan-democrats or others advocating democracy. These are to be ‘reviewed’ in the light of the new national security law before any return to shelves. Likewise, schools have been told to do the same, and the Secretary for Education has further instructed schools to better educate their students in being good Chinese citizens. More censorship of curriculum is expected. Further, international and private schools are facing closer scrutiny, without too much explanation for the effort.

      Do let me know if you have any ‘follow-up’!

      All the best!