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HomeNewsCrossing the Red Line: Behind China’s Takeover of Hong Kong

Crossing the Red Line: Behind China’s Takeover of Hong Kong

The march of Hong Kong toward authoritarianism began with a single phrase in a dry policy paper. The document stated that Beijing would have “comprehensive jurisdiction” over the territory.

The paper, published in June 2014, signalled Chinese President Xi Jinping’s determination to quell political dissent in the former British colony, which had maintained its own laws and freedoms. Many, however, dismissed the words as an intimidating swagger that the city’s robust legal system and democratic opposition could not overcome.

Hong Kong now has a clear understanding of Mr. Xi’s ambitions. The paper signalled the start of a battle for control in the city, culminating in the far-reaching national security legislation that few saw coming.

Since that law went into effect a year ago, Beijing has unleashed a stampede of actions to bring Hong Kong into political alignment with the Chinese Communist Party, including the arrest of activists, the seizure of assets, the firing of government employees, the detention of newspaper editors, and the rewriting of school curricula.

While the crackdown appeared to come out of nowhere, it was the culmination of years of work in Beijing. Interviews with insiders and advisers, as well as speeches, policy papers, and state-funded studies, reveal Chinese officials’ growing concern about Hong Kong protests, their frustration with wavering among the city’s pro-Beijing ruling elite, and their growing conviction that Hong Kong has become a haven for Western-backed subversion.

Beijing laid the groundwork for a security counteroffensive in the years following the release of the white paper. Officials questioned the assumption that the framework negotiated with Britain near the end of colonial rule guaranteed Hong Kong’s autonomy. They resisted calls for democratic rights, while powerful advisers boldly suggested that if Hong Kong legislators failed to act, Beijing could impose a security law.

There were hints that Beijing’s positions were hardening. Only the final push, in the months before the security law was enacted, was shrouded in near-total secrecy.

Those signals, often conveyed with the Communist Party’s usual calculated opacity, failed to cut through Hong Kong’s political turpitude. The city’s opponents had envisioned decades of grinding, shifting political battles against Chinese government encroachment, not a lightning war. Given the risk of a global backlash and the territory’s critical financial role, many expected Mr. Xi to proceed with caution. Even Beijing’s most ardent supporters in Hong Kong underestimated how far he was willing to go in the end.

China’s offensive has accelerated its takeover of Hong Kong, portending deeper changes that could end the city’s status as Asia’s cosmopolitan capital.

“The whole process evolved gradually until a couple of years ago, when it accelerated very quickly,” said Lau Siu-kai, a Hong Kong scholar who advises Beijing on policy. “The issue is that the national security law was enacted very suddenly, and many people, including so-called pro-Beijing people in Hong Kong, were caught off guard.”

Mr. Xi took power in 2012 amid hopes in Hong Kong that he would be a pragmatic overseer, content to rely on the politicians and businessmen who had long served as Beijing’s surrogates.

His father had been a liberalising leader in neighbouring Guangdong Province, and Mr. Xi initially portrayed himself as a moderate. He told Hong Kong’s top official, Leung Chun-ying, that China’s attitude toward the territory “will not change.”

However, as he consolidated power, Mr. Xi revealed an iron-fisted ideological agenda. In mainland China, he stifled dissent and condemned ideas like judicial independence and civil society, which many saw as defining values of Hong Kong.

Mr. Xi’s policy paper from 2014 signalled his rejection of the notion that laws and treaties shielded Hong Kong from Chinese state power. Many Hong Kong residents had long worried that the city’s autonomy was fraying, but previous Chinese leaders preferred to exert influence in a more indirect and covert manner.

According to Michael C. Davis, a former professor of law at the University of Hong Kong and author of “Making Hong Kong China,” the paper’s new phrase, “comprehensive jurisdiction,” suggested that Beijing no longer saw a legal “firewall” enclosing Hong Kong.

While the term sparked outrage among Hong Kong lawyers, many saw it as an intimidating political statement with no legal foundation, one that would embolden rather than deter the opposition.

“This avowed posture of ‘crushing a crab to death with a boulder” is a foolish move, according to Chan Kin-man, an academic at the forefront of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy campaign at the time. “It will only elicit a stronger social reaction.”

Beijing quickly demonstrated that it was serious about establishing new rules for Hong Kong.

Mr. Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, had hinted at fulfilling China’s long-delayed promise to let the public directly elect Hong Kong’s top official, the chief executive. In August 2014, the Chinese government unveiled a limited proposal to allow direct voting beginning in 2017, but only among a select group of candidates approved by Beijing.

Tens of thousands of people responded by occupying major streets for nearly two months. Chinese leaders began to worry that Hong Kong had turned into an ideological abscess that needed to be drained.

Chinese media and pro-Beijing politicians began referring to the protests as a “colour revolution,” the party’s term for a Western-backed insurgency. Chinese officials stepped up calls for the territory to pass security legislation, as required by the Basic Law, Beijing’s set of rules that grants Hong Kong its special status.

The government began to dismiss the joint declaration with Britain that laid out the conditions for Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997 as a relic. According to a British lawmaker, a Chinese diplomat in London stated that the declaration was “now void.”

Mr. Xi, on the other hand, was not yet ready to launch dramatic incursions into Hong Kong. His policy alternated between warnings and reassuring economic gestures, leading some to believe that the party’s political bite would fall short of its rhetorical bark.

Mr. Xi’s control over China’s own security apparatus was insufficient. According to Tian Feilong, an associate professor of law at Beihang University in Beijing who became a supporter of a tougher approach to protesters, Beijing also wanted to keep tensions with the United States in check and give Hong Kong time to repair its economy after the demonstrations.

Given these factors, he claims that Chinese leaders “didn’t immediately set to work on resolving the national security issue.”

Controlling opposition in Hong Kong was more difficult than in other tense areas on China’s outskirts, such as Tibet and Xinjiang.

Hong Kong had its own legal system derived from the United Kingdom, a large and well-organized democratic opposition, and far greater global economic exposure. The deployment of Chinese troops to quell protests could frighten financial markets.

Pro-Beijing Hong Kong politicians were hesitant to push for national security legislation. A previous attempt had failed in 2003 due to widespread opposition.

“No one was willing to pick up this hot potato,” Professor Tian explained. “No one, including Western countries, truly believed that Hong Kong could complete this legislation locally.”

Mr. Xi’s calls for resurgent party power after 2014 emboldened policy advisers to seek new ways to break the impasse over Hong Kong. Hawkish voices began to argue that China could impose a security law on the city through constitutional means.

“Some people believe that the central government is powerless,” Mo Jihong, a law professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a state think tank, said at a 2016 meeting about Hong Kong security legislation. “The central government has the authority to address these issues.”

Some Chinese academics have published studies arguing that the mainland’s national security law could be extended to Hong Kong. Others proposed that China pass a law tailored specifically for Hong Kong, thereby avoiding political stumbling blocks in the city.

Mr. Xi was widely expected not to go that far in Hong Kong. When China passed its own security law in 2015, Hong Kong’s top security official, Lai Tung-kwok, stated that the city’s responsibility to enact laws against crimes such as treason and subversion would be “fulfilled by local legislation.” He stated that the administration has “no plans to enact” such legislation. Insiders shook their heads at the prospect of Beijing imposing one.

“I never imagined you could use this approach,” Tam Yiu-Chung, the sole Hong Kong member of China’s legislature’s top committee, said in a recent interview. “I’d heard about it, but there were so many complications.”

Mr. Xi was ready to raise the stakes by July 2017, when Hong Kong’s elite gathered to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the territory’s return to Chinese sovereignty.

It was his first trip to Hong Kong as China’s President. Mr. Xi inserted a steely warning into his celebratory speech just hours before tens of thousands of people began an annual protest for greater democratic rights.

Threats to “national sovereignty and security,” as well as challenges to the central government’s authority in Hong Kong, “would cross a red line and will never be tolerated,” according to Mr. Xi.

Mr. Xi’s words galvanised policymakers in China’s top-down system to seek new ways to defend that “red line.”

Chen Duanhong, a law professor at Peking University, was one influential adviser who submitted several internal reports about Hong Kong to Communist Party headquarters, including one on the adoption of security legislation. Around the same time, he publicly stated that in a dire situation, Chinese leaders could “take all necessary measures” to defend sovereignty, ignoring the constraints of lesser laws.

“The state’s will must constantly respond to its survival environment,” he wrote, “and then take decisive measures at critical moments.”

The critical juncture appeared to arrive for Beijing on the evening of July 21, 2019. Hundreds of protesters surrounded the Central Liaison Office, China’s main office in Hong Kong, and splattered black ink on the red-and-gold Chinese national emblem above the door.

The protests began in June as a largely peaceful outpouring of opposition to a bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. Within weeks, they had grown into a massive movement, releasing years of bottled-up rage at Beijing’s encroachments. Some outspoken protesters began to advocate for independence.

Many Hong Kong residents felt that resistance was necessary, even if victory was unlikely. “We thought it would be a slow strangling,” Jackie Chen, a social worker who participated in pro-democracy protests in 2019, said. “We were considering how to slow their strangling, stop it, and then turn things around.”

The defacement of the national emblem confirmed to Beijing that the protests had turned into an attack on its very claim to Hong Kong.

The official media, which had been silent on the protests for weeks, erupted. The Communist Party’s main newspaper, People’s Daily, said the incident “brazenly challenged the central government’s authority” and “crossed a red line,” echoing Mr. Xi’s warning two years earlier.

“Enough is enough,” Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing Hong Kong legislator, said recently in an interview, recalling the authorities’ reaction to the vandalism.

“And the Hong Kong independence slogan,” she added. “You’ve gone too far.”

The clearest indication of Beijing’s response came in October 2019. Hundreds of top officials were seen raising their hands in a closed-door meeting to support a move to tighten law and order across China, according to state television. The plan, which was released a few days later, proposed establishing a “legal system and enforcement mechanism for national security” in Hong Kong.

That warning was widely misinterpreted. While many Hong Kong residents expected Beijing to take action to end the protests, most expected the steps to be familiar. Some expected renewed pressure on local lawmakers to pass security legislation.

Ms. Ip, the lawmaker, was sceptical at the time that Chief Executive Carrie Lam could make significant progress on a security law. “It’s not going to happen any time soon,” she stated in November 2019.

There was no mention of security legislation imposed directly by Beijing. The proposals of the mainland scholars had largely faded from view. Top loyalists and government advisers in Hong Kong were not briefed on the option, which could have fueled protests.

It had “not been discussed in the media,” according to Albert Chen, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong who serves on Beijing’s legal advisory committee. “At the time, not even mainland Chinese scholars discussed this possibility.”

But, with their credibility harmed by months of protest, China’s leaders had already reached beyond the offices that normally dealt with Hong Kong and quietly recruited experts to prepare for the security intervention, according to two people who were told about the deliberations by participants. The preparations were overseen by top Communist Party agencies, according to both people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.

Mr. Xi would formally extend China’s formidable security apparatus to Hong Kong, establishing a body that would report directly to the party.

Even the most draconian public proposals for security legislation could not have predicted this step.

“No one, in their wildest dreams, would have predicted the existence of a central agency in Hong Kong,” said Fu Hualing, dean of the University of Hong Kong law school.

The city was taken aback by the announcement. A spokesman said at a late-night news conference on May 21 that lawmakers would review a plan to impose a national security law on Hong Kong ahead of China’s annual legislative meeting.

On June 30, the law was quickly passed, outlining four offences — separatism, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers — with penalties ranging from life imprisonment to death. It demanded that schools and the media be monitored.

It also established a new Chinese security agency in Hong Kong that is virtually immune to legal challenges. It was given the authority to investigate cases and bring defendants to trial on the mainland, where prosecutors’ charges are rarely rejected by party-controlled courts.

Officials in the city initially stated that the security law would be applied with meticulous precision; instead, it triggered a rolling campaign that has left few corners of society unaffected.

Over the last year, Hong Kong authorities have arrested more than 110 people in national security investigations, charging 64 of them, including the majority of the city’s most well-known pro-democracy activists.

The Chinese security agency has largely remained hidden. Its most visible presence has been its temporary headquarters at the 33-story Metropark Hotel Causeway Bay, which overlooks Victoria Park, which was once the site of some of Hong Kong’s most violent protests.

It has, however, broken its silence on occasion, reminding residents that it lurks behind the scenes.

It has lauded the arrests of high-profile figures, including opposition politicians and top editors of Apple Daily, a brash pro-democracy tabloid that was caught up in the law and forced to close last week. According to a local official, it has combed museums for potentially subversive artwork. It has praised the security law as a panacea for Hong Kong’s political upheaval.

“I thank the Hong Kong people,” Zheng Yanxiong, the agency’s chief, said in an unusual public speech on National Security Education Day in April.

“They’ve gone through a very natural, reasonable process from unfamiliarity, guessing, and waiting for the Hong Kong National Security Law to acceptance, welcoming, and support,” he said.

A week later, the Hong Kong government announced that China’s security agency would establish a permanent headquarters on the city’s waterfront, on a plot of land roughly the size of two football fields.


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