As Hong Kong approaches its birthday of his massive pro-democracy protests, China is going to impose a sweeping national security law which could directly undermine Hong Kong’s freedoms and special status and flare tensions after a year of political turmoil.
The National People’s Congress – a rubber stamp for the Chinese government – will pass legislation designed to curtail foreign interference or activities that undermine the state. That could directly target the anti-governmental activists who have challenged Beijing’s authority. The Chinese government has attempted that Blame outsiders, including the US, to promote the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is governed by the “one country, two systems” rule. The “one country” part means that it is officially part of China, while the “two systems” part gives it a degree of autonomy, including rights such as freedom of the press that are lacking in mainland China. China would adhere to this arrangement until 2047, but it has eroded those freedoms and has been trying to tighten Hong Kong’s control for years.
Last spring, the Hong Kong legislature attempted to pass an extradition bill that critics feared would allow the Chinese government to arbitrarily detain Hong Kongers. This sparked massive protests, leading to months of unrest that sometimes turned violent. The bill was withdrawn, but the demonstrations continued, as the battle turned into a bigger fight to protect Hong Kong’s democratic institutions.
The coronavirus pandemic and the social distance measures needed to slow its spread have suspended much of that public activism. But Beijing has not forgotten – and used the pandemic to further tackle the pro-democracy movement, including by arresting pro-democracy lawmakers in April.
Now China has introduced this national security law, which is a much more direct step towards what Beijing has been trying to achieve for years: one country, a system.
“It’s an official death sentence for Hong Kong, it’s nothing short of that,” Alvin Y. H. Cheung, a scholar at NYU’s US-Asia Law Institute, told me.
The full implications of Beijing’s moves are still unclear, including how it will be implemented and what the political and economic implications for Hong Kong will be.
Advocates of democracy have denounced the legislation. Beijing’s attempts to interfere with Hong Kong affairs in the past – the extradition rules are one, but far from the only example – have sparked widespread resistance. This law could flare up those tensions.
Samuel Chu, the director of the Hong Kong Democracy Council, a US-based pro-democracy group, said China’s decision to intervene directly demonstrates that it has not been able to fully govern Hong Kong. “I think this – not just in the short term – will thwart the pro-democracy movement even more and generate some sort of response that China is unprepared [for]. ‘
This has always been China’s plan – if not necessarily the playbook
At least rhetorically, China has respected the “one country, two systems” rule, but in practice it has sought more and more control over Hong Kong.
But Beijing also had to be careful, as some of its boldest moves met with resistance. Which includes a 2003 attempt to enact a national security law under Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law (Hong Kong is closest to a constitution). This would also have set up rules against undermining the state and foreign interference, but the law was suspended after massive protests.
And in 2014, when Beijing relinquished its promise to give Hong Kong universal suffrage, the Umbrella Revolution broke out. And then, of course, there was last summer, when the Hong Kong legislature tried to pass that controversial extradition law, and months and months of demonstrations followed.
For a long time, China and pro-Beijing legislators in Hong Kong kept dreaming of the adoption of a national security law under Article 23 of Hong Kong and Beijing had urged Hong Kong in recent weeks to pick it up again.
But now China does not do that and does it all by itself.
Ho-Fung Hung, a professor of political economics at Johns Hopkins University, said Beijing may have intervened directly because it learned a lesson from the protests against the 2019 extradition law, which eventually defeated the legislation and embarrassed China.
“It will be a real shame if it tries to push through the local legislator who will eventually be overhauled because of local protests,” Hung said. “Beijing didn’t want to reach that event. Beijing didn’t even trust the local legislator, so it chose this kind of extreme route to enact legislation directly.”
“And it’s a big risky move,” he added, “because it breaks down all the remaining pretensions of ‘one country, two systems’.”
China’s dramatic escalation is also due to the fact that the world – and the media, which had devoted much attention to the protests in Hong Kong – is distracted by the corona virus pandemic, and because Hong Kong itself is under social distance restrictions. Imposing those rules gave Hong Kong some cover to quell the protests (and also helped successfully control the outbreak there).
But China had long made it clear that it had no tolerance for the protesters, or even more peaceful challenges to its authority, such as when pro-democratic candidates in Hong Kong dominated local elections. And now China has at least hinted how it intends to consolidate its control.
“It’s such a big development because it’s actually Beijing that more ardently claims that ‘no, we actually have this kind of authority that we can impose on Hong Kong,'” Jacob Stokes, a senior policy analyst for China at the US Institute of Peace, told me.
It even makes the nominal idea of ”one country, two systems” somewhat ridiculous, he added. “China is changing Hong Kong from what it was before and in a way just another city in China,” said Stokes. “And that’s what the protest movement is trying to avoid.”
What is next? Nobody knows.
While China’s planned action makes clear that it has in fact decided to stop pretending that it is ‘one country, two systems’, officials are still trying to frame this rhetorically to strengthen and protect the Hong Kong government from foreign
“We will ensure the long-term stability of” one country, two systems “,” Wang Yang, head of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, said the Washington Post.
What this means for Hong Kongers is still uncertain. The law has not yet been passed and the details are still vague – exactly how it will be implemented and what it will contain. According to the New York Times, Chinese officials have indicated that the law targets foreign influences that have caused unrest in Hong Kong. But that is largely disinformation; China has blamed outsiders for fueling violence in Hong Kong to deny basic resistance.
The law can have a chilling effect on China’s deviant desires and get rid of all extreme protests. The opposite also seems possible: that China’s actions – proof that many Hong Kong people felt they should continue to protest – would further escalate tensions.
Hong Kong was already divided into two camps: “blue” (those supporting the police) and “yellow” (those supporting the protesters). But many of those “yellow” donors disagreed with the more radical tactics of some Hong Kong protesters, such as storming the Legislative Council or occupying a university campus.
But the Chinese raids can make it more difficult for pro-democracy Hong Kongers to argue in favor of a more moderate stance. “They will eventually be forced to either become fully pro-Beijing agendas or pro-confrontational protesters,” said Hung, Johns Hopkins professor. “It is the disappearance of the middle ground and will really become more polarized.”
Many protesters in Hong Kong were young and fought to maintain the independence and freedom they had left behind. “All the things that were purportedly promised just aren’t there anymore,” said Cheung. “What should they lose at this point? It really is a powder keg now and I’m afraid to figure out how this will turn out. ‘
The first real test for dissent in Hong Kong may come soon. Traditionally, a vigil is held in Hong Kong in honor of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing on June 4, 1989, a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
In China, the event has been dropped from history. But in Hong Kong, thousands remember it. Hong Kong’s measures to ban social gatherings are in effect until June 4, although organizers have called on Hong Kongers to “be water,” a reference to the strategy that the leaderless protesters used in Hong Kong in 2019, calling on Hong Kongers to find other ways to commemorate the day.
Chu, the director of the US-based Hong Kong Democracy Council, said activists have acknowledged that this could be China’s first year preventing this meeting.
“Don’t allow it to happen – again, I think it is a lesson that the Hong Kong and the Chinese government have not learned well that every time they do something, this is exactly what drives the basics.”
“It will be a small test to see the reaction,” he added, “but I think you’ll see the continued creativity and resilience continue.”
How does the rest of the world react?
The international community will also be tested by China’s move. The United Kingdom and the European Union both condemned the move. United States Department of State spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement to Reuters that “Any attempt to impose national security laws that do not reflect the will of the people of Hong Kong would be very destabilizing and would be met with strong condemnation from the United States and the international community.”
A day before China announced this national security law, Pompeo had warned China of Hong Kong’s encroachment and said it could threaten the State Department’s review of Hong Kong’s special trading status, which treats its trade and commerce differently from mainland China.
Last year, President Donald Trump signed the Hong Kong Freedom and Democracy Act, which requires the Secretary of State to assess whether Hong Kong should still be granted special trade status under US law, based on whether the Hong Kong government is still largely autonomous and respects the rule of law. The law also calls on the President to impose sanctions on officials who violate human rights in Hong Kong.
“Our decision on whether to certify Hong Kong as” a high degree of autonomy “from China is still pending,” Pompeo said at a news conference on Wednesday. “We keep a close eye on what’s going on there.”
Revoking Hong Kong status would be a dramatic step, with unclear consequences. It would undoubtedly send a strong signal to China, but it could affect both the US and Hong Kong. The US could lose tens of billions in the trade, and it could jeopardize part of Hong Kong’s reputation as a global financial hub, again beating the city.
The Trump administration has recently pushed back against China as it plans to find ways to punish Beijing for its early mishandling of the coronavirus, which could motivate him to take a tougher stance on Hong Kong. At the same time, China could retaliate for such a move, and Beijing may be betting that the US has too much at stake to make such a drastic move.
Asked about the proposed national security law on Thursday, Trump said he didn’t know what the US would do. “I don’t know what it is because nobody knows it yet. If it happens, we will tackle that problem very strongly.”
The US may not want to exhaust this leverage against Beijing, either. And the US may also be unwilling to say that Hong Kong’s autonomy has been completely lost at this time.