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Opinion | Contemptible report plumbs new depths in US' strong-arm geopolitics

By Richard Cullen

The latest disgraceful Washington spasm of geopolitical bullying has emanated from the grandly titled Congressional-Executive Commission on China. In this case, the Congress and the executive government operate in tag-team mode, enhancing the geopolitical intimidation level. In a report vacuously titled "One City, Two Legal Systems", the commission recommended that the US government consider imposing sanctions on 29 judges — including Andrew Cheung Kui-nung, the chief judge of the Court of Final Appeal — who handle national security cases in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Judiciary strongly condemned this American move, labeling it "a direct affront" to the independence of the courts. The Bar Association and the Law Society also criticized the report's openly subversive recommendations.

The former Hong Kong Special Administrative Region director of public prosecutions, Grenville Cross, argued that: "This squalid attempt to intimidate our judges will not succeed, and the judges will, as their judicial oath requires, continue to administer justice without fear or favor."

Predictably, there is a risible attempt to sanitize this inflammatory interference in the operation of the rule of law in another jurisdiction by claiming that it is all done in the name of advancing democracy and universal rights. At least the commission resisted the temptation to argue that it was also striking a blow for climate change justice. However, it would not surprise me if it pondered how that disinfecting claim might also be worked into the narrative. What this feeble cover story does most of all is to confirm how entrenched American shamelessness has become as it pursues its all-of-government project to contain the rise of China.

Still, looking at the matter from a strictly Washington perspective, a secondary benefit of this public display of American bullying is undoubtedly how it will be noticed by certain potential waverers elsewhere in the region: Terrify the chicken to frighten the monkeys.

Meanwhile, the criminal justice system in Hong Kong — underpinned by its extended, full-bodied rule of law reputation and the Basic Law — guarantees fair trials (with rights of appeal) before an independent judiciary, where guilt must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. By any comparative measure, it continues to manage this demanding, vital task conspicuously well. As Cross acutely notes: "Hong Kong was ranked 22 out of 140 jurisdictions in the World Justice Project's Rule of Law Index for 2022, well ahead of the US on 26."

Just as this dismal report was released, leading international commentator Kishore Mahbubani captured a key part of its essence in a particularly apt warning, which he explained at a recent forum organized by the Singapore Chamber of Commerce. Mahbubani advised that, within the present Sino-American geopolitical context, Hong Kong should be prepared to be "sandwiched" and "kicked around like a football" for the next decade. This must be so. The HKSAR now sits across a critical geopolitical fault line within the vast and complex Sino-American relationship.

Washington regularly speaks about wanting enhanced "communication" with China, while US officials and elites simultaneously direct megaphoned lectures, claims of threatening behavior, and, too regularly, unalloyed abuse at Beijing. America increasingly looks like a superpower beset by a split-personality disorder, and, as a consequence, tensions in this crucial relationship are, today, steadily being amplified.

The anti-China lobby in the US has aptly been labeled fanatical by those looking in from the outside. Fortunately, serious, thoughtful commentators within the US are also worried about this. One of the most respected, Fareed Zakaria, recently compared the current grave dysfunctionality and panic-driven decision-making in Washington to the worst of the McCarthy era in the 1950s. Zakaria openly called for the US to step firmly away from a foreign policy "forged out of paranoia, hysteria and above all, fears of being branded as soft".

Unfortunately, there is no sign, so far, of America stepping back from its current warped world outlook, which is chiefly galvanized by superpower-slippage angst. Thus, this year (among other entertainments incubated in Washington), we have had to grow accustomed to menacing, China-focused congressional inquisitions, which rely heavily on badgering and coercive operational modes. This contemptible new report, however, has undoubtedly plumbed new depths within America's exceptional brand of strong-arm geopolitics.


The author is an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Law of Hong Kong University.

The article was first published in China Daily.


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