Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy | East Asia

US Presidential Elections 2020: The Future of Hong Kong

Insights from Allen Carlson.

Mercy A. Kuo
US Presidential Elections 2020: The Future of Hong Kong
Credit: Flickr/ Studio Incendo

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Allen Carlson – associate professor in Cornell University’s Government Department and director of Cornell’s China and Asia Pacific Studies program – is the 242nd in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

How might a Biden administration manage Hong Kong amid U.S.-China tensions?

If Biden succeeds Trump, his administration will have to quickly move to address the carnage that has been left from the current White House’s wildly unpredictable handling of world affairs. The hallmark of the Biden administration’s approach will be an affirmation of the role and value of expertise in shaping decision-making and outcomes. Such a return to normal should result in a more stable and predictable policymaking process. However, it will not entail a radical shift in U.S. policy toward China, or, for that matter Hong Kong.

And how about managing Beijing in this context?

Biden is, and will be, decidedly less bombastic than Trump in laying out such a position, but he is also likely to be as, and likely more, firm than Trump has been since 2016. This will entail more consistently following through on the Hong Kong legislation that has already been passed by the U.S. Congress, while devising new measures to put pressure on the Chinese leadership to moderate its stance on Hong Kong than the current administration has been.

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Describe three scenarios – good, bad, ugly – for Hong Kong’s future.

To no small extent the nature of Hong Kong’s future was shaped this summer by the unprecedented enactment of the National Security Law (NSL) and the extent to which it surpassed core aspects of the existing status quo there. The only outstanding question is how tumultuous or stable post-NSL Hong Kong will be.

The best-case scenario, the “good,” is that the law will (for better or worse) establish a modicum of stability in the city. It will deter large-scale protests and satisfy Beijing’s desire to see Hong Kong accept Chinese rule. Should such a situation prevail, then it is possible that Xi will pull back from the use of additional heavy-handed tactics, and a new, circumscribed space will emerge for Hong Kong to practice its autonomy and grow its economy. Nothing will be resolved, but a new normal will emerge.

In contrast, it is more likely that a “bad” scenario will take root, in which no one is satisfied with the new status quo, but neither Beijing nor those in Hong Kong is able to effectively change the current stalemate. As a result, an unsettled calm will envelop the city, foundational issues over how it should be governed will go unresolved, and its economy will falter and fester. The situation will be intractable but not especially volatile.

However, it is also possible that dissatisfaction with the post-NSL status quo will be so great that, despite the risks, additional measures will be taken by either side in the current stand off and result in an “ugly” tragedy. On the one hand, Beijing may feel emboldened to forcefully follow up with an even more muscular show of force to firmly establish dominance over the city. On the other hand, protesters in Hong Kong may become so resentful of the NSL that they will escalate the level of their opposition to China and turn to using more violent measures to express such dissent. Without attributing moral equivalence to these two prospects, it is still possible to say that both would likely result in an even greater level of opposition.

Examine the impact of National Security Law in Hong Kong on the “one country, two systems” framework in Taiwan.

China’s promise of autonomy to Taiwan has always rung a bit untrue. The credibility of Beijing’s offers has always been offset by its record of governance in places like Tibet and Xinjiang. Yet the passage of the NSL underscores such lack of credibility. It hints that perhaps Xi’s China is not even particularly interested on reassuring Taiwan on this score.

What post-election strategic messaging on Hong Kong should a Biden or Trump White House signal to China and the international community?

Optimally, consistency paired with a rational balance of deterrence and reassurance. Wild vacillations and obvious divisions within should be eliminated. And within such a more orchestrated approach, messaging should both demonstrate to Beijing the firmness of U.S. opposition to certain Chinese policies, but also a willingness to cooperate over issues of mutual interest. In other words, that there remains room on the world stage for both America and China.

However, realistically, it is difficult to imagine a re-elected Trump would follow such a rationale stance. And, pragmatically, it is unclear to what extent Biden would place a premium on such issues as he will likely be facing steep domestic political and economic challenges.

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One of the glaring deficiencies in Trump’s messaging to China has be its inconsistency. Through most of his term in office Trump touted his personal connection to Xi and generally downplayed the threat the country posed to the U.S., even as he embraced the trade war. Then over the past year, he has turned to bashing China on all fronts, especially on COVID-19. Such yo-yoing has the effect of undermining Trump’s praise and threats alike.