There was always something illusory about the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that guaranteed the continuation of Hong Kong's capitalist system and basic freedoms for 50 years after the city's return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. The Joint Declaration had been made possible by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's clever "one country, two systems" formula, which enabled the United Kingdom to withdraw, with face-saving grace, from a colonial position it could no longer defend.
The illusion lay in the belief that a second system based on economic freedom and the rule of law could be maintained for 50 years within a communist dictatorship. Calling the Joint Declaration an international treaty and lodging it with the United Nations was beside the point, because neither Britain nor anyone else was going to go to war to defend it.
What seemingly gave the illusion substance was the belief that preserving Hong Kong's capitalist way of life was in China's self-interest, especially given the country's own embrace of the market economy under Deng's guidance. There was also the remote hope that Chinese capitalism would gradually lead to greater democracy, so that the two systems would eventually converge.
Things did not turn out that way. China's own economic miracle made Hong Kong less important to it economically, while Deng's violent suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests eviscerated any hope that communist rule would wither away.
Hong Kong's current crisis arose over the implementation of the 1990 Basic Law, a constitution designed to give effect to the Joint Declaration. The Basic Law's Article 23 states that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) "shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government." The HKSAR would also "prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region," while barring "political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies."
Article 23 was designed to set the limits on Hong Kong's autonomy, and to help ensure that China retained control of security, defence, and foreign policy. British attempts before 1997 to limit the provision's scope to actual acts of violence – as opposed to expressions of opinion and politics – were vetoed by China. And the Hong Kong government's post-handover efforts to implement Article 23 failed in the face of popular protests.
In China's eyes, the HKSAR lacked the tools to deal with "subversion." But many of Hong Kong's citizens viewed Article 23 as a menace hanging over their future.
China got its chance to act when widespread street protests erupted in Hong Kong in June last year, following the politically inept attempt by Carrie Lam, the city's chief executive, to force through an extradition bill on China's behalf. Although China's main aim was to punish and deter economic crimes on the mainland, the demonstrators feared – with some justification – that the proposed law would expose Hong Kong's citizens to mainland definitions of crime and China's illiberal justice system. The bill was eventually withdrawn, but only after months of civil disorder had brought much of Hong Kong to a standstill.
Now, with the rest of the world distracted by COVID-19, Chinese President Xi Jinping has upped the ante by calling for the immediate implementation of the missing security law. On May 28, the Chinese National People's Congress demanded that Article 23, plus supplementary measures allowing Chinese security forces to operate in Hong Kong, be implemented by a special process under the Basic Law's Annex III, which allows Hong Kong's executive to bypass local legislative and judicial approval.
China's legal position is not without merit, because Hong Kong's guaranteed autonomy never extended to national security. But the heart of the issue is that the new security law breaches the spirit, if not the letter, of the Joint Declaration, because the political dynamics of the "two systems" have started to diverge so profoundly.
Dictatorships always feel less legitimate than free societies, so will always demand more "security" than a free society regards as proper. The belief that the Joint Declaration would spare Hong Kong from this moment of reckoning has now been exposed as a fiction.
The Hong Kong crisis will further fuel Western, particularly American, demands for economic sanctions against China, as part of the wider effort to contain the country's rise. Ramming through a security law for Hong Kong will also strengthen the independence movement in Taiwan, and might even elicit a US military guarantee of the island's independence, with incalculable geopolitical consequences.
But none of this is likely to deter China, which has waited 23 years for "its" security law to prevail in Hong Kong and is unlikely to back down now. So, Hong Kong's citizens will face their moment of truth: either knuckle under, or get out.
And the UK may yet offer them a way out. On May 28, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that unless China shelved its new security bill, the UK government would offer British National (Overseas) passport holders in Hong Kong a path to citizenship by allowing them to study or work in the UK without a visa for 12 months, instead of the current six. Some 300,000 Hong Kong residents hold this "legacy" passport, and an estimated 2.9 million others who were born before 1997 are eligible to apply for one.
This half-promise of political asylum is music to the ears of a group of Hong Kong professionals who have been promoting the idea of collective emigration to new "charter" cities in freer countries. It is an inspiring vision, and Britain would be the emigrants' natural, though not exclusive, host. But would China allow such a mass exodus, and would host countries welcome the establishment of new Hong Kongs within their borders?
The UK has a special responsibility in this regard. In Hong Kong, the British implanted a unique culture of enterprise and freedom on Chinese soil. As the "one country, two systems" logic unravels, transplanting the city to other locations may offer the best chance to preserve it.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Project Syndicate, and is published by special syndication arrangement