Business must keep pushing for freedom in Hong Kong

The writer is a democracy activist in Hong Kong

Last week I was arrested and charged with participating in an unauthorised assembly in October 2019, and with violating a law that prohibits demonstrators from wearing masks.

As a democracy activist, I have grown accustomed to surveillance and harassment. But Beijing is now building a new, more punitive regime before our very eyes. It has imposed a draconian national security law on Hong Kong that covers expats and foreign companies as well as residents. The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre is being erased from textbooks, as the civil liberties that Hong Kong once enjoyed are stripped away.

Then, last week, China released details of its plans for an “unreliable entity list”. The vaguely worded document bans foreign companies from trade and investment in China if they are considered a danger to its national sovereignty, security or development; or to damage the interests of Chinese individuals or firms.

The new list adds one more widget to Chinese tool kits of economic statecraft, alongside state-sponsored boycotts and import bans. Under the terms of the list, Beijing has full discretion in determining which companies are problematic. HSBC shares fell last week after a state-run tabloid reported that it might be put on the list despite being one of the first companies to publicly back the national security law.

Beijing’s political agenda also includes an attack on the professionalism of Hong Kong’s public sector. Beijing’s Liaison Office recently called for a “new struggle against the three mountains, from legal, education to social service sectors” in the city.

When local courts are required to serve Beijing’s punitive arm, it calls into question whether judicial independence, once considered the last bastion of Hong Kong’s autonomy, can be sustained. Recently, a prominent Australian judge resigned from the city’s appeals court over the national security law and the territory’s chief justice, Geoffrey Ma, last week felt compelled to warn against politicising the courts.

After more than a year of protests and crackdowns, it is dubious if Beijing could turn the clock back in Hong Kong, even if it wanted to. People and companies have lost their trust in the “one country, two systems” framework. Beyond any doubt, Chinese coercion diplomacy will become the new normal in the territory.

For business, this new Chinese assertiveness implies looming political uncertainties. Beijing can impose punitive new measures at any time. But attempting to appease Chinese demands can undermine companies in the eyes of western consumers, as shown by the growing calls for boycotts of Chinese cotton and Disney’s movie, Mulan, over human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

But Beijing’s coercive statecraft relies upon its power as the world’s biggest consumer market and its manufacturing prowess. The Covid-19 pandemic offers companies a chance to take stock. This is a good moment for executives to begin gradually rebalancing their business and investment portfolios. Local and overseas companies should consider diversifying their markets to avoid overdependence on China.

Liberal democracies should consider banding together to offer protection to individual companies that find themselves trapped in fights with Beijing.

In these darker times, the last thing I would like to see is people losing faith, doing nothing about the situation but counting down to more arrests ahead. Actions are and will always be a solution to an era in crisis.

So long as Hong Kong continues to function as the gateway of global capital flowing into China, foreign companies and governments still have the leverage to call for more human rights and freedom protections. It is the high time these values were acknowledged. We hope the world continues to speak up when our voices are silenced. 

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