Brushing aside the popular sentiment against it and growing global outrage, on June 30 Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a controversial national security law that gave Beijing unprecedented powers to shape the future of Hong Kong. It dramatically reduces Hong Kong’s autonomy and gives Beijing the ability to crackdown against dissent under the garb of tackling crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
For most Hong Kongers it is clear that it cuts at the very heart of their freedom of expression and organisation, effectively repudiating the ‘one country, two systems’ principle on which the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China has been premised since 1997.
Hong Kong has been rocked by anti-Beijing protests since June 2019 and the new law is effectively Xi’s revenge on Hong Kongers for making him withdraw the controversial extradition Bill last year. Since then a broader anti-China and pro-democracy movement has been gathering momentum in Hong Kong which Beijing is now determined to demolish with this new law.
What has been interesting this time is how New Delhi has reacted to these developments. The fact that India reacted at all is in itself a significant shift. New Delhi chose the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva to react where it argued that it has been keeping “a close watch on recent developments” in Hong Kong given the presence of a large Indian community there. Without naming China, India’s permanent representative to UN in Geneva Rajiv Chander expressed India’s hope that “the relevant parties will take into account these views and address them properly, seriously and objectively.”
New Delhi had in the past been reluctant to talk about the Hong Kong issue but recent deterioration in Sino-Indian ties on account of violent clashes in the Galwan Valley of Ladakh on June 15, perhaps, made it imperative for India to change its approach. In the past India has been reluctant to even give visas to pro-democracy activists of Hong Kong and along with Indonesia was the only other member state of the G-20 last year which refused to even meet pro-democracy activists to accept a petition so as to put pressure on China.
India also maintained a studied silence over China’s ill-treatment of its Muslim minority in Xinjiang. However, China’s behaviour vis-a-vis India has been quite explicit as it even tried to raise the issue of Kashmir in the United Nations Security Council after the Modi government revoked Article 370 in August.
The current border crisis has challenged the very foundations of India’s China policy and all aspects are being recalibrated by New Delhi — from trade and technological engagement to China’s domestic political imperatives. There has also been a global pushback against China. Major powers such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Japan have all spoken out against the new Chinese law. At the UNHRC, 27 countries spoke in one voice asking China not only to reconsider its sweeping national security law on Hong Kong, but also to allow the UNHRC chief meaningful access to its western Xinjiang province.
India too added its voice to this growing chorus of opposition to Chinese moves as this is about something much bigger. What we are witnessing today is Xi’s China willing to shred all global norms and treaties to pieces in an effort to project its growing might. From its pacts with India to the maritime rules in the South China Sea, from its treaty with the UK on Hong Kong to its insistence on manipulating global organisations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) — all paint a disturbing picture of a revisionist power intent on casting the world in its own image.
Hong Kong is also important for India for economic reasons. For global investors, it has always been an attractive destination, leading to its emergence as one of Asia’s most powerful financial centres. With around $34 billion bilateral trade India was Hong Kong’s third-largest export market in 2017. Beyond trade, India has also seen growing investment from Hong Kong and the presence of Indian professionals in key sectors such as IT and banking in Hong Kong is readily evident. Political stability and rule of law in Hong Kong is essential for preserving India’s long-term equities in the city.
As India recalibrates its China policy across sectors, Hong Kong has emerged as an important issue which New Delhi should not hesitate to leverage vis-a-vis China. India has vital stakes in Hong Kong both from a bilateral as well as a global perspective. If that emboldens China to rake up Indian domestic matters on global platforms, so be it. As a mature democracy, we should be able to articulate and defend our positions to our global stakeholders. It is what makes India different from China and a more reassuring global presence.
In any case, China has never hesitated to meddle in Indian domestic matters in the past. India’s past diffidence in challenging China on its ‘internal’ matters has not really paid New Delhi any significant dividends. India’s Hong Kong move has been noticed the world over and Indian policy makers should use this moment in global politics to put China on notice.Harsh V Pant is director, Studies at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and professor of international relations, King’s College London. Views are personal.