After steadily eroding Hong Kong’s political freedoms and independent legal system, Beijing signaled that the national security law will be a new tool that allows it to directly tackle the political dissent that erupted on Hong Kong’s streets last year. The months-long and sometimes violent protests began last June and fizzled out only over public health concerns related to the coronavirus outbreak.
Comments from top Communist Party officials also indicated that they are prepared to change the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, which sets out rights unavailable in mainland China such as freedom of assembly and the press.
The new tactic marks an escalation in Beijing’s crackdown in the former British colony and the clearest indication that it views Hong Kong as a restive region to be brought to heel after last year’s protests.
The city’s future has become a point of contention in the intensifying rivalry between China and the United States; on Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington was “closely watching what’s going on” in Hong Kong. Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong have directly appealed to Washington for intervention, frequently waving American flags on the streets, and see themselves as the last bastion of resistance against an increasingly assertive Beijing under President Xi Jinping.
On Thursday, China made clear it was asserting control over Hong Kong through “improvement” of its governance.
“We will ensure the long-term stability of ‘one country, two systems,’” Wang Yang, head of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, said at the opening of the annual meeting of China’s top political advisory body. The meeting is the first part of the Two Sessions political gatherings, which will continue Friday with the National People’s Congress (NPC), the rubber-stamp parliament.
“We will continue to support the improvement of the implementation of the systems and mechanisms of the constitution and Basic Law,” Wang said in a report to the meeting.
Later Thursday, representatives from Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office met with Hong Kong delegates to China’s legislature to explain the details of the national security law. The law, a direct response to last year’s protests, will ban secession, subversion of state power, foreign interference and terrorism, said Stanley Ng, a Hong Kong deputy to the NPC, who attended the meeting.
The legislation could pass as early as next week and will bypass all of Hong Kong’s usual processes.
“The social unrest last year showed that the Hong Kong government was unable to handle passing [national security legislation] on its own,” said Ng, a Beijing loyalist who has for years pushed for a similar law. “Hong Kong’s status will be sacrificed with or without this law if society is unstable due to the protesters’ violence.”
The Hong Kong dollar weakened sharply against the U.S. dollar as the reports emerged.
Beijing blamed last year’s unrest on secessionist forces and foreign influence. A government proposal to allow extraditions to mainland China touched off the unrest, but the movement grew into a broader and sometimes violent rebellion calling for full democracy and opposing China’s efforts to chip away at Hong Kong’s firewall with the mainland.
Wang did not elaborate on what “improvement” meant. But he also referred to the Chinese territory of Macao, a gambling hub where open displays of political dissent are rare and where most leaders toe Beijing’s line.
The shift will have far-reaching effects. Under the agreement Britain signed with China before it handed back Hong Kong in 1997, the territory is supposed to enjoy its relative freedoms until at least 2047 under the “one country, two systems” framework.
This arrangement helped Hong Kong to flourish as a global financial center even after returning to Beijing’s overall control, and has allowed the United States and other nations to treat the city differently to China. It also allowed Hong Kong to run its own affairs, except foreign affairs and defense.
But under Xi’s leadership, the Communist Party has encroached on Hong Kong’s autonomy with stunning speed.
“I’m speechless,” said Dennis Kwok, a pro-democracy lawmaker, of the proposed national security legislation. Kwok was singled out for criticism by Beijing and was recently removed from his chairmanship of a key legislative council committee. “This is a complete and total surprise and I think it means the end of one country, two systems.”
Kwok said that the Hong Kong government and Beijing had used the coronavirus pandemic as cover to clamp down on the city.
“When the world is not watching they are killing Hong Kong, killing one country, two systems, and using social distancing rules to keep people from coming out to protest,” he said. “This is the most devastating thing to happen to Hong Kong since the handover.”
On Wednesday, Pompeo warned China about its actions in Hong Kong, saying that the city’s pro-democracy lawmakers had been “manhandled” this week “while trying to stop a procedural irregularity by pro-Beijing legislators.”
“Leading Hong Kong activists like Martin Lee and Jimmy Lai were hauled into court,” Pompeo told a news conference in Washington. “Actions like these make it more difficult to assess that Hong Kong remains highly autonomous from mainland China,” he said.
For the United States to treat Hong Kong as a separate entity, mostly for commercial purposes, the State Department must certify that the city retains “a high degree of autonomy” from China. Pompeo said its latest decision on this was still pending.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry, through its office of the commissioner to Hong Kong, said Thursday that Pompeo was “blackmailing” the Hong Kong government and accused him of “blatant interference” in China’s internal affairs. It also took aim at Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) for placing “unjustifiable pressure on China’s central government.”
“Certain U.S. politicians are repeatedly carping on about [Hong Kong’s] legislative and judiciary branches in a vain attempt to glorify and exculpate the rioters who oppose China and seek to stir up trouble in Hong Kong,” it said. “They just don’t want to see Hong Kong heal its divides and get back on track: Their sinister motives are thoroughly exposed, and their ‘black hands’ are bared for all to see.”
In recent months, Beijing has installed a tough new representative in Hong Kong, called for patriotic education to instill more allegiance to China, and promoted a bill that would make it a criminal offense to disrespect China’s national anthem.
Delegates from Hong Kong, including Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, arrived in Beijing on Thursday for the Two Sessions.
Wang said Beijing supports the Hong Kong deputies’ efforts to “avoid violence in Hong Kong and to restore order.”
Timothy McLaughlin in Hong Kong contributed to this report.