Sunday, April 19, 2020

The COVID-19 Accelerator Effect: The Situation in Hong Kong and the Virtual Conflict Between the United States and China

(Pix from New York Times HERE)

(Pix Wikimedia)
Like others, I recently noted ("Will COVID-19 infect the world order?") that the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a cover or a portal or an excuse, or a convenient nodal point (depending on thew perspective one chooses to view events) for the acceleration of transformations (but not their genesis), the trajectories of which were already clear.  For those starting from this premise, then, COVID-19, then, has not been used to make meaning; rather it has served as the prism through which  that meaning acquires a more complex coloring.

Nowhere is this made clearer than at the borderlands of emerging post-global Empires (CPE EmpireSeries). Those borderlands can be abstract (as in the territorialization of global production chains built on the hub-and-spoke-model of America First or China's Belt and Road Initiative).  Or it can be evidenced in forays at the physical frontiers of Imperial domains. These are neither natural nor inevitable spaces (real or virtual; concrete or abstract).  Rather they are point along a continuum chosen because they appear to signal a weak point in the construction of the protective boundaries that are being constructed to define and separate one Imperial system from another.

For all kinds of reasons, Hong Kong has appeared to serve such a purpose. More importantly, since the start of 2020, Hong Kong has also proven to be an important site from which one can observe the character of the COVID-19 accelerator effect. The convergence and the likely consequences of these post-global imperial system conflicts in Hong Kong (here understood as a physical territory and as an abstract space that itself stands for competing narratives of order and of historical progression), accelerated by pandemic, has moved to another stage in the wake of the April 2020 arrests of Hong Kong opposition figures by the authorities (e.g., Amid Pandemic, Hong Kong Arrests Major Pro-Democracy Figures). 
More than a dozen leading pro-democracy activists and former lawmakers in Hong Kong were arrested on Saturday in connection with the protests that raged in the city last year, the biggest roundup of prominent opposition figures in recent memory. * * * The high-profile arrests were made as Hong Kong battled to contain the coronavirus outbreak, which has helped quiet down the huge street protests but fueled further distrust of the authorities. The virus has halted protests around the world, forcing people to stay home and giving the authorities new laws for limiting public gatherings and detaining people with less fear of public blowback while many residents remained under lockdowns or observing limits on their movement. (Amid Pandemic, Hong Kong Arrests Major Pro-Democracy Figures).)
This post briefly considers the recent arrests of important figures in the conflicts in Hong Kong. The object is to suggest how these arrests provide a window on one of the more important consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic--its power to act as an accelerator.

At its core, and from a legal perspective, the situation in Hong Kong is fundamentally a challenge for and a test of the complex political-economic model that China has constructed, one which distinguishes the application of that model among its territories. For China, that has proven to be a delicate and sensitive matter requiring the balancing of a number of objectives around the core driving premises of its political-economic order (2019 Hong Kong Situation). One gets a sense of that from the recent writing of leading Hong Kong academics who understand the very delicate line that defines Hong Kong as a challenge for the integrity of internal governance of China, and as a site for its international dimensions (see, Chen Zimo and Willa Wu, "Experts confirm liaison office's role not limited by Article 22," China Daily 19 April 2020). After more intense local coverage (Leading legal adviser says Beijing offices right to criticise opposition lawmakers), one of those experts quoted then thought it prudent to further elaborate (Albert Chen elaboration of opinion as posted to Facebook; also here). This, in turn, touched on the connection between the timing of the statement and the subsequent arrests that served as the initiation of this current situation (Police in Hong Kong arrest 15 activists amid autonomy warnings ("The arrests came just hours after China’s liaison office asserted in a strongly-worded statement that it and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) – China’s top bodies overseeing the city’s affairs – are “authorised by the central authorities to handle Hong Kong affairs.”")).

Ordinarily that alone might not provide much of a wedge point for inter-Imperial competition.  But Hong Kong is different--born of a series of international agreements, and bound up in its own history of territorial trading under the rules of 19th Century imperial constructions--it provides an almost ideal opportunity for competitor aggregations of power to test  China's. And not just that; it produces substantial value-added for the project of internal meaning making as a means of advancing narratives of differences in the construction of imperial order (their respective constitutional-moral orders). 

China, perhaps inadvertently, or because of the irresistible nature of the "in-between-ness" of the situation in Hong Kong, has effectively conceded  this status--physically within China and abstractly occupying more than one "space."  In defending the police action, China, as it has become accustomed to doing when irritated by others, blamed the black hand of foreign interference--as if its own people were entirely robotic and without a will that could be turned in any direction.
China blamed Western forces and defended police conduct after Hong Kong endured another weekend of violent clashes between protesters and police. Some "irresponsible people" in the West have applied "strange logic" that made them sympathetic and tolerant to "violent crimes" but critical of the police force's "due diligence," a Chinese government spokesman said at a news briefing Monday. "At the end of the day, their intention is to create trouble in Hong Kong, make Hong Kong a problem to China, in order to contain China's development," said Yang Guang, spokesman for the Chinese Cabinet's Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, without mentioning any specific individuals or countries. He added that such attempts will come to nothing because Beijing will tolerate no outside interference in Hong Kong's affairs. (China defends Hong Kong police, blames Western forces)
Pix credit: here
But as we have suggested elsewhere, the "black hand defense" (and here) comes with its own risks--especially risks to the ultimate Chinese premise of the condition of Hong Kong within the borders of Chinese political sovereignty. That risk, for example, could be seen in the need for a police official from Hong Kong having to travel to the United Nations in Geneva to defend its actions before an international public body (HK police defend ‘vilified’ reputation in Geneva ("In a direct effort to clear the name of the much-maligned law enforcement agency, the deputy commissioner of the Hong Kong Police Force, Oscar Kwok Yam-shu, set out to establish the “truth” in Geneva of what has happened in Hong Kong over the past eight months.")). The greater irony is that this occurs only weeks before the arrests are made. This can be seen both as a sign of weakness at the peripheries of imperial sovereign authority, and (from an outsider perspective) an admission of the special and international status of that otherwise space which ought otherwise to be assumed to be well within the borders of Chinese sovereign authority.

And yet, from a Chinese perspective, the acceleration of its incorporation of Hong Kong--not just within the national territory, but within the political-economic model (with a substantially smaller autonomy)--was made necessary by its core responsibility to maintain order inside its domain. Disorder undoes everything; order is the foundation upon which the political-economic model can thrive. Inside a conceptual view that considers the mechanisms of the domestic legal-political order supreme over any international obligation (a view that in its own way it shares with many important actors in the United States) the disorder in Hong Kong made acceleration inevitable before COVID-19 (see, e.g., here, and here).  What COVID-19 provided was a space within which it was possible (even necessary given what might come after) to accelerate this policy trajectory.  In effect, the arrests were necessary, and necessary now, because any delay would present authorities with the more difficult task of maintaining order in the absence of COVID-19 to impose a virus driven order. The Statement of the Hong Kong Government in that respect is telling, emphasizing the lawfulness of the arrests and the duty to maintain order (Arrests Based on Evidence ("It emphasised that under the Police Force Ordinance, Police have the duty to take lawful measures for apprehending all persons whom it is lawful to apprehend and for whose apprehension sufficient grounds exist. The bureau noted that the relevant arrests were made based on evidence from investigations and strictly according to the laws in force.")).

But it is precisely the acceleration of Chinese central authority in Hong Kong that also strengthens the response outside of China.  That response is built on the notion that the assertion of direct sovereignty itself is an admission of its absence. That absence, in turn, can only be explained through the operation of those international arrangements under which an issue of contested sovereignty  (at least with respect to a part of that territory) was resolved.  Acceleration, in this context, then, is viewed both as an admission of incomplete internal sovereignty and of an intention to breach international promises.  That, in turn, can then be generalized by competing imperial orders into the suggestion that China values its promises only to the extent that it suits.  The conclusion--the narrative to be woven from this--China cannot be trusted, not just respecting Hng Kong, but more generally with respect to all of its promises.
“The United States condemns the arrest of pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong,” US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said. “Beijing and its representatives in Hong Kong continue to take actions inconsistent with commitments made under the Sino-British Joint Declaration that include transparency, the rule of law, and guarantees that Hong Kong will continue to ‘enjoy a high degree of autonomy’.” (US and UK condemn arrest of Hong Kong democracy activists)
China's foreign affairs office in Hong Kong might be understood to have fallen into the trap thus created by falling back to the "Black Hand" defense: "The spokesperson said the US politicians were “condoning evil acts and making a travesty of the rule of law by ignoring facts, distorting the Sino-British Joint Declaration, and trying to exonerate anti-China troublemakers in Hong Kong on the pretext of ‘transparency’, ‘the rule of law’ and ‘a high degree of autonomy’”." (Beijing foreign affairs office in Hong Kong hits back at governments for criticising arrests of pro-democracy figures).

That defense, however, did nothing to counter the really important thrust of the condemnation--not one having to do with the SPECIFIC situation in Hong Kong (of some but not central importance to competing empires) but of the situation in Hong Kong as a MEANS of accelerating the construction of a narrative of difference, but one that requires a more robust decoupling. That becomes clearer not from the US foreign ministry (with its own limited vision and the need to focus in a particular way).  It comes from a ministry closer to the heart of the organization of the competitor empire--the office of the US Attorney General:
In a separate statement, U.S. Attorney General William Barr called the arrests “the latest assault on the rule of law and the liberty of the people of Hong Kong.”   “These events show how antithetical the values of the Chinese Communist Party are to those we share in Western liberal democracies,” he added, saying the arrests and other actions “demonstrate once again that the Chinese Communist Party cannot be trusted.” (US condemns arrests of Hong Kong democracy activists)
The implication, at least for imperial construction, become clear: if one cannot trust the Chinese, then for the instrumentalists of US economic activity the implications are clear--hedge in the operation of supply chains and be wary of market dependence either at the buying or selling end).  For others, it serves to draw in starker terms the border between the two imperial organizations. Where both compete for territory (again not physical but conceptual, and with it the control of the factors of production necessary for the design and operation of global production) then this border drawing can be effectively used. Yet it is the COVID-19 accelerator that lends  additional power to what otherwise might have been more lukewarm responses.  One gets a hint of this from the statement issues by the Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne: "'That this has happened in the midst of the global crisis stemming from COVID-19 is concerning. Actions that undermine stability are never acceptable, but to do so during a crisis of this magnitude erodes goodwill and trust," she said." (Payne condemns Hong Kong arrests of democracy advocates amid coronavirus). At the same time, the Editorial Board of the US Wall Street Journal begins an editorial this way: "The world is learning some unpleasant truths about China’s Communist Party amid the Covid-19 pandemic, and the latest example comes from Hong Kong. " (China’s Hong Kong Roundup).

For those without the necessary imagination to connect the dots and draw the intended picture, the West provides a substantial set of sources of appropriate explanation to drive home the point. One can only marvel at the coincidence that on the heels of the Hong Kong arrests,  H. R. McMaster, a retired United States Army lieutenant general, is a former White House national security adviser publishes (incongruously enough) in The Atlantic an article, "How China Sees the World--And how we should see China." Its object was both to more clearly define the borders of the two empires, and to suggest that these conceptual borders have hard effect.
 China has become a threat because its leaders are promoting a closed, authoritarian model as an alternative to democratic governance and free-market economics. The Chinese Communist Party is not only strengthening an internal system that stifles human freedom and extends its authoritarian control; it is also exporting that model and leading the development of new rules and a new international order that would make the world less free and less safe. . . . And, on balance, the Chinese Communist Party’s goals run counter to American ideals and American interests. ("How China Sees the World--And how we should see China.")
And the essay clearly suggest that a necessary consequence must be decoupling, with quite specific and conceptual border enhancing focus:
-Many universities, research labs, and companies in countries that value the rule of law and individual rights are witting or unwitting accomplices in China’s use of technology to repress its people and improve the Chinese military’s capabilities. * * *
-Many Chinese companies directly or indirectly involved in domestic human-rights abuses and violation of international treaties are listed on American stock exchanges. Those companies benefit from U.S. and other Western investors. * * *
-China’s use of major telecommunications companies to control communications networks and the internet overseas must be countered. * * *
-We must defend against Chinese agencies that coordinate influence operations abroad—such as the Ministry of State Security, the United Front Work Department, and the Chinese Students and Scholars Association. At the same time, we should try to maximize positive interactions and experiences with the Chinese people. * * *
-The U.S. and other free nations should view expatriate communities as a strength. Chinese abroad—if protected from the meddling and espionage of their government—can provide a significant counter to Beijing’s propaganda and disinformation. * * * ("How China Sees the World--And how we should see China.")
All of this, of course, is then underlined by the US line adopted in the wake of the Hong Kong arrests.  

It is in this context that one can usefully consider recent actions undertaken in Hong Kong, as well as the power of the international reactions it might produce. Those together will then be even more purposefully fitted together within the larger framework of the construction of the meaning of the global order from the narrative spinning of its Chinese and American makers.  None of this is spectacular or new--what makes it interesting is the way that it might be used to understand and define the characteristics and modalities of the COVID-19 Accelerator Effect on inter-imperial systemic relations.

The accelerator works in two directions simultaneously.  Internally, it changes the scope and character of the movement to the end of the special status for Hong Kong within Chinese space.  Externally , it accelerates the movement toward the decoupling of empire and the refinement of the conceptual territories of each.  Conceptual territories, more than physical space, mark the actual territorial limits of post-global empire.  Conceptual territories, the expression of meaning making, the objectification of the systems around which contemporary empire is constructed, is the essential framework within which these systems can be incarnated, and thus incarnated manged across what will become secondary borders (territory, ethnicity, religion, and the like). In this case, the principal territorial decoupling and meaning making revolve around the Chinese and the American empires. And in the process it would be foolish to sell either short.  

 Written reply to first journalist’s inquiry (18 April 2020):
“I think the statements made by the HKMAO and Liaison Office are legitimate and lawful comments on important aspects of the implementation of the Basic Law that are the concerns of the Central Authorities. As pointed out in the statements, the Central Authorities have the responsibility to exercise supervision over the implementation of the Basic Law. The Basic Law was intended to establish a legislature in the HKSAR that is effective in its operation. The effective operation of the LegCo is in the public interest of Hong Kong people, as well as in the interest of the Central Authorities who have legitimate concerns regarding any 'malfunctioning' of LegCo.
The filibuster during the meetings to elect the chairman and deputy chairman of LegCo's House Committee has resulted in LegCo being paralysed. Without a chairman the House Committee cannot meet to discuss and do any normal legislative business. According to LegCo rules and practice, the House Committee occupies a central role in the operation of LegCo as a whole. It scrutinises bills and subsidiary legislation. It decides on the establishment of bills committees to study bills, and on the appointment of subcommittees to study subsidiary legislation. It decides on the establishment of select committees or committees of inquiry. It decides whether to refer particular matters to the LegCo panels on various policy domains. It prepares for the plenary meetings of the LegCo.
The failure of the House Committee to elect a chairman and deputy chairman (and then to start its normal operation) after 15 meetings in the last six months is scandalous and a matter of grave public concern in Hong Kong. The paralysis of LegCo's normal legislative function is clearly detrimental to the public interest of Hong Kong, and a significant malfunctioning of the constitutional role which the Basic Law assigns to LegCo.
In these circumstances, I consider it legitimate for the Central Authorities, acting through the HKMAO and Liaison Office, to issue an admonition and to draw the public's attention to this matter.
The courts of HK have pointed out that the Basic Law should not be iinterpreted merely literally and narrowly. Provisions should be interpreted purposively and in their context. Adopting the proper approach to the interpretation of Article 22 of the Basic Law, I do not think it is a breach of the article for the HKMAO and Liaison Office to make the recent statements or comments. ”

Written reply to second journalist’s inquiry (19 April 2020):
“The crux of the matter (which may not have been reported in a balanced manner by the media) is that 'opposition' politicians have paralysed the legislative function of LegCo (since the beginning of the current LegCo session in October 2019) by paralysing its House Committee (by filibuster so that it has failed to elect a chairman after 15 meetings in the last 6 months). Many people don't understand the function of the House Committee, which actually is the heart of LegCo's legislative activities -- this Committee decides on whether a bill should be further considered by setting up a Bills Committee, and decides on the setting up of subcommittees to scrutinize subsidiary legislation. LegCo has not been able to perform these basic and vital legislative functions in the last 6 months because the House Committee cannot handle its normal legislative business (because there is no chairman to chair its meetings for normal business (other than the election of a chairman)). To put it simply, almost all legislative activities in Hong Kong have come to a halt. LegCo is still able to perform its financial (as distinguished from its legislative) function (such as approving the allocation of money yesterday to assist those affected by the economic downturn caused by COVID) because the LegCo Finance Committee (as distinguished from the House Committee) is still able to function. As regards legislative business, 14 bills and 89 pieces of subsidiary legislation (in the form of regulations) are in a state of limbo because of LegCo's paralysis, including a bill on paternity leave for fathers, and a bill to provide tax relief to those adversely affected by the pandemic, and many pieces of regulations to introduce social distancing measures.
In my opinion, the paralysis (in the last 6 months) of the legislative function of LegCo is unprecedented in the history of HK (including its colonial history and the history of the HKSAR). This is a constitutional crisis of major magnitude. I cannot imagine any HK court interpreting Artice 22 of the Basic Law in such a way as to hold that public statements (which have no legal effect whatsoever and can be simply ignored by LegCo members concerned) made by the Hong Kong and Macau Office and the Liaison Office alerting Hong Kong people to this constitutional crisis in HK constitute an unlawful or unconstitutional 'interference in the affairs' of the HKSAR.”

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