“Scenario One: riots in West Berlin, buildings in flames, the East German fire brigade crosses the border to help. Would you press the button? The East German police come with them. The button? Then some troops! More troops, just for riot control they say. Then the East German troops are replaced by Russian troops … Button? When the Russian troops won’t go they are invited to stay to support the civilian administration, the civilian administration closes roads and Tempelhof Airport. Now you press the button?”

Salami tactics, so succinctly described here by Yes, Prime Minister, are not the mere product of comic writers. Devastatingly deployed by Hungarian Communist leader Mátyás Rákosi, and other Soviet stooges they enabled Moscow to consolidate their grip over Eastern Europe after the Second World War.

Russian Invasion – Salami Tactics | Yes Prime Minister

Taking control one piece at a time has its advantages. The slow dividing and subtle subsuming of the opposition results in them being left holding half a stick by the time they have clocked on to what is happening. Even then, after they have realised what is one more thin slice? Or another? Or another? Until there is no stick at all.

Clearly the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have taken notes. If not from the tribulations of the Right Honorable Jim Hacker then at least their Stalinist forebears. Just look at Hong Kong today.

If Hong Kong is dead then its death has been a slow one, with many (premature) obituaries written. The unilateral imposition of Article 23 on the people of Hong Kong may not be the final death nail. Even with the introduction of this anti-subversion law, Hong Kong will still be much freer than the People’s Republic – admittedly an uncomfortably low bar if there ever was one. Its implementation is a fundamental attack on Hong Kong’s autonomy and a potentially irreversible turn for the worse. Yet it is still hard to say it is the end, this after all is the trouble with salami tactics.

A broken promise on Universal Suffrage here, and a few abducted booksellers there. The barring of political candidates, the expelling of elected lawmakers, the routine arrest of pro-democracy activists and the steady escalation of police violence against protestors. More recently still, Legislative Council coups and ominous statements from the Liaison Office. Now Article 23. All have raised the question: is One Country Two Systems over?

Protesters holding the British colonial flag and a flag that reads “Hong Kong Independence.” Photo: Studio Incendo.

This is an interesting inquiry, no doubt. Yet if the death of One Country Two Systems has occurred or is imminent then the more pressing question which must be answered is: what is to be done?

It is a question which has been asked many times. During a House of Lords debate, last year, Lord Patten reflected on a talk he gave in Hong Kong back in 2016. Afterwards, one student told him: “It’s all very well, Governor Patten, you coming along and making those sorts of remarks, but what happens if the Chinese continue to squeeze us? What will the rest of the world do? What will you do in Britain? What will the United States do? What will Europe do? What will you do personally?”

Chris Patten. File photo: Handout.

“It is a very good question”, Patten concluded as he wrapped up his speech. He is right. A good question and, given how events have unfolded, a pertinent one. Moreover, a bloody difficult one to answer. Solutions are difficult especially against an enemy as powerful as the CCP.

During this current crisis, Patten has drawn support from international parliamentarians against the imposition of Article 23. The message is clear, breaching the Sino-British Joint Declaration will have consequences for the People’s Republic of China’s global reputation. If One Country Two Systems is further eroded then Britain, and its allies, should ensure that the rest of the world knows Beijing’s word counts for nothing. This is an extremely welcome intervention. As are the suggestions from my fellow Hong Kong Watch co-founder Benedict Rogers, who has highlighted Magnitsky-style targeted sanctions and alterations to the status of British National (Overseas) passport holders as just two concrete steps the British government could take in response.

Anyone can join the “Something Must Be Done” brigade or, for that matter, write an opinion piece (guilty as charged). So having the above suggestions are a real boost to the credibility of the international effort to defend Hong Kong. They take into account an understanding of the policymaking process and the levers foreign governments have at their disposal. Yet understanding this has its own constraints. With it, there is also a pressure to lower demands to something that governments of the day may find somewhat reasonable. Instead of calling for what should be done or what can be done, instead, options which governments might consider are proposed. After all, nobody like shouting into a void…

Photo: May James/HKFP.

… but here goes nothing. If we reach a point in the future when the threat of shaming has failed, and sanctions have proved futile, what next? Despite being an international treaty, lodged at the United Nations (UN), the Sino-British Joint Declaration has no enforcement or dispute provisions in the event of its breaching. In this case, should Britain, and its allies, simply accept Hong Kong under a One Country One System model?

No. From 1997, Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy and that its way of life would remain unchanged for fifty years. This was the basis on which Britain gave the PRC the territory it desired. If Beijing no longer wishes to honour this agreement then Britain, and its allies, should not either. What is the point of liberal democracies constraining themselves with rules and agreements which the authoritarians of this world have already decided to ignore?

If One Country Two Systems is over before 2047 Beijing’s rule over Hong Kong should be regarded as illegitimate. How exactly this should be expressed I do not know (see coming up with actual solutions is difficult). Until 2008 the British government did not explicitly recognise the PRC’s sovereignty over Tibet but instead its suzerainty. While an obscure distinction, and according to its critics anachronistic one, it did affirm the belief that Tibet was distinct from other provinces within the PRC. Thus it expressed the belief that Tibet should be granted some level of autonomy, that is without any fifty-year end date. Moreover, the acknowledgement of this relationship served as a basis for talks between Beijing and the Dalai Lama. Inspiration may also come from the international communities response to Russia’s 2014 landgrab in the Crimea. Here the British government have repeatedly condemned the Putin regime and have refused to accept this “illegal annexation”. This view has also been expressed in a vote at the UN General Assembly.

While neither example fits the Hong Kong situation perfectly they could, I hope, be a starting point for discussion. Surely democratic governments across the world can do better than the French who have told the CCP that they respect the PRC’s sovereignty and have “no intention to interfere in affairs of China’s Hong Kong” – so much for President Macron ‘champion of the liberal international order’). Or for that matter measures, such as America’s revoking of Hong Kong’s special privileges, which only treats the territory more and more like just another PRC province. Which surely is, in the end, precisely what the CCP wants.

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Gray Sergeant

Gray is a writer based in Taipei who regularly comments on Taiwanese, Chinese and Hong Kong politics. Previously he worked in human rights advocacy, and for many years was an activist for the UK Labour Party. Follow him on Twitter.