The Hong Kong national security law deals a serious blow to the territory’s unique political freedoms and autonomy. The law is the culmination of Beijing’s efforts to assert greater control over Hong Kong, which has seen both a steady erosion of civil liberties and growing protests against Beijing’s control in recent years.
The national security law achieves the objective of further cementing China’s control over Hong Kong, but this move will have multiple negative consequences for Beijing’s relationships with Hong Kong, the United States, and other countries in Asia. China’s willingness to pay these costs should inform how the United States structures its policies toward China if Washington wants to create effective policies for changing Beijing’s behavior.
The Hong Kong national security law is the latest in a long list of Beijing’s foreign and domestic policies that are souring China’s relationship with other countries. In June 2020 alone, China has likely launched large‐scale cyberattacks against Australia and killed Indian soldiers along a contested border. Domestically, the Associated Press reported this week that China’s abusive policies toward the Uyghur people include a massive campaign to reduce Uyghur birth rates through practices like forced sterilization.
Economic relations have not fared any better. The coronavirus pandemic derailed a potential U.S.-China détente on trade issues and the Trump administration announced that it would start rolling back Hong Kong’s favorable trade status due to China’s attempts to reduce Hong Kong’s autonomy.
For all its raw power, Beijing has done a terrible job of managing its domestic and foreign relationships. The Hong Kong national security law will only deepen the perception that China is an increasingly hostile and uncompromising power. In the United States, this will accelerate the development of an emerging consensus for a tougher China policy even if the details of such a policy are up for debate. Furthermore, the steamrolling of the “one country, two systems” model will make it harder for countries to cooperate with Beijing today if it could reverse course and break agreements or mutual understandings tomorrow.
Yet Beijing’s repeated willingness to implement policies that it knows will result in reputational, political, and economic costs should be a wakeup call for U.S. policymakers, especially when it comes to issues that Beijing sees as essential for national sovereignty. If China is willing to hurt itself in the process of asserting greater political control over Hong Kong, then what costs will it be willing to absorb in order achieve similar goals such as establishing control over Taiwan? If Beijing has a fundamentally different assessment of the stakes of its policies, then is it possible for the United States to coerce China into changing course?
These are important questions to consider because much of the discussion about a more competitive U.S. approach to China focuses on imposing costs that can force a change in Beijing’s policies. Competing with China through punishment scratches the “do something” itch, but given China’s recent behavior a U.S. cost imposition strategy is unlikely to produce the changes that Washington seeks.
Noting China’s acceptance for cost absorption doesn’t provide an answer to the question of what U.S. policies can successfully change Chinese behavior. However, as Washington grapples with big questions about how to deal with a rising China it will be important to soberly assess how Beijing reacts to various policies.
The Hong Kong national security law is another data point showing that Beijing is willing to take actions that cause pain for itself in order to achieve a core national interest. A U.S. strategy that is too heavily dependent on raising costs for China may be easy to sell in Washington, but it will probably not change Beijing’s behavior.