“What is freedom if not the right to tell others what they don’t want to hear”
The small territory of Hong Kong, with its 1,106 square kilometers of land and its 7.5 million inhabitants, has become in these weeks the best representation of the New Cold War between the United States and China.
Almost two centuries ago, Hong Kong was the image of an opposite process: A declining and defeated China – much due to internal corruption and to the messy administration of the Qing dynasty – and an unbeatable West (in this case represented by Great Britain) as a result of the technological advances of the industrial revolution and to its rapid and efficient application for military purposes. After emerging victorious in the First Opium War (1839 – 1842), the English took possession of Hong Kong. More than 50 years later, on June 9, 1898, the parties signed the “Convention for the Extension of the Territory of Hong Kong”, an agreement whereby China gave in “free lease” the territory of Hong Kong and some neighboring territories for a period of 99 years.
And since there is no deadline that is not met or debt that is not paid, that 99-year period ended and Hong Kong had to be returned to China on July 1, 1997. However, the parties established a very important agreement to guarantee the permanence of the status quo in Hong Kong despite its transfer to China. On December 19, 1984, the “Joint Declaration of the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Question of Hong Kong” was signed in Beijing. This agreement established the fundamental concept of “One Country. Two Systems”, under which Hong Kong would be considered a “Special Administrative Zone” where the capitalist system, private property, freedom of enterprise, as well as certain basic human and political rights would be respected. The agreement was that, over a period of 50 years (to expire in 2047), China would not make any substantive changes to Hong Kong in any of these respects.
A couple of weeks ago, the government of the People’s Republic of China announced the creation of a new security law, issued centrally from Beijing, totally ignoring Hong Kong’s local legislative process, and breaking the historic agreement not to bring about major changes until 2047. This law criminalizes any act that puts national sovereignty, territorial unity, or public peace at risk. Like all security laws, it is sufficiently ambiguous to be able to selectively apply it to political opponents, reduce freedom of expression, and to increase political control. It is undoubtedly an action perfectly calculated by China, in order to measure the real reaction – beyond pure rhetoric – on the part of the West. This event shows a much firmer and more assertive position coming from China, putting its priorities and ambitions above multilateral commitments or its reputation in the international community. China will continue to look for ways to promote the changes that are convenient for her, facing head to head a United States that no longer wants or cannot be the leader of the world. It will be interesting to see if any other country in the West can take that leadership. Hong Kong is just a test and today they seem to be more alone than ever.
Managing Partner of Nuricumbo + Partners. His work as a consultant has focused around CFO services and challenges, in companies of all sizes, both in Mexico and abroad. He began his career at PWC. Later, he held the position of internal audit manager for Young & Rubicam and The Interpublic Group, two international advertising groups, working for five years in New York City and performing audit projects in many countries.