Threats of retaliation won't change China's position on Hong Kong
Tom Fowdy

Editor's note: Tom Fowdy is a British political and international relations analyst and a graduate of Durham and Oxford universities. He writes on topics pertaining to China, the DPRK, Britain and the U.S. The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

As China's National People's Congress (NPC) continues to deliberate national security legislation for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), in accordance with the procedures set out in Articles 18 and 23 of the Basic Law, there has inevitably been objections from media and government voices in the West. The United States has hinted at an unspecified degree of retaliation should the legislation be implemented, with a White House press spokesman stating that President Trump is "displeased with China's efforts and that it's hard to see how Hong Kong can remain a financial hub" if the law is adopted. Figures from the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada have also raised objections, accusing Beijing of undermining the "One Country, Two Systems" model.

I have previously set out why this rhetoric is misleading, noting in a former piece that the Basic Law is under the constitutional provision of the NPC, which holds a right of final interpretation over it, that provisions in the fields of national security, defence and foreign affairs are beyond the scope of Hong Kong's autonomy as per Article 18, and most crucially that it has the right to add laws to Annex III of the Basic Law, especially during the event of "turmoil within the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region which endangers national unity or security and is beyond the control of the government of the Region" – which matches the current situation in the territory.

However, the West will continue to ignore this and continue to present the situation as a one-sided power grab whereby China is acting illegitimately. Given this, when the law is enacted it is likely that some parties will respond in a given way in the continued attempt to undermine China's national and constitutional sovereignty. How exactly is unclear. Irrespective, Western powers need to assess the situation realistically. No matter what they may try, China's position on issues of national sovereignty are non-negotiable and have been since the foundation of the state. This should be interpreted in its proper historical, cultural and political context rather than be depicted as a "struggle between good and evil."

The third session of the 13th National People's Congress opens at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, May 22, 2020. /Xinhua

The third session of the 13th National People's Congress opens at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, May 22, 2020. /Xinhua

China's emphasis on national sovereignty is a historically conditioned trait and the output of a legacy whereby other countries repeatedly undermined it. The Western cliché which interprets everything as a scheme of the Communist Party clouds judgement on the matter. Instead, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries Western powers repeatedly undermined the sovereignty of China in pursuit of their own interests. This included acts such as colonialism, extra-territorialism, a disregarding of local laws and treaty port concessions. Beijing was not treated as an equal partner and was deemed as having less sovereign rights than Western countries.

The impact of this legacy has shaped contemporary China by making the issue of national sovereignty an issue of paramount priority. Although formal colonialism has ended, the West continues to believe its ideology gives it a right to downplay China's sovereignty as a "lesser other." In this case, Beijing's foreign policy has been mandated on the realist aspect that it must draw consistent red lines in order to force other parties to take its sovereignty seriously, otherwise it will be undermined. This is not "aggression" by China, but it is in fact a defensive posture premised on the logic that like any state, its sovereignty is a non-negotiable issue. Many in the West do not understand this as they do not know what it is like to once be the weaker party and be subjugated by others.

In this case, the national security legislation is within China's sovereign rights (as detailed in Basic Law articles 18 and 23) and the Sino-British declaration is not being violated. In addition, Beijing has made it clear that it cannot be bullied, intimidated or coerced into compromising its position on this. The United States may threaten to take away Hong Kong's special status or even blacklist officials and organizations, but this cannot change the outcome or dissuade China. Sovereignty for China is not premised on a cost-benefit calculation; it cannot be traded, bought or sold.

Therefore, Western analysts, observers and politicians should understand quickly that this issue is non-negotiable. As per the Basic Law, Beijing is acting within its rights and in turn, China would rather suffer costs than allow Western nations to exercise a stake over its sovereignty, divide it and humiliate it. This is seen as a necessity. It is this premise which separates post-1949 China from its predecessors. Thus, any actions taken by Washington or others are likely to be met with a response that they cannot deter the law, push it to withdrawal or prevent its implementation.

(If you want to contribute and have specific expertise, please contact us at