Chinese President Xi Jinping will travel to Hong Kong next week to “attend a meeting celebrating the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the motherland and the inaugural ceremony of the sixth-term government,” according to China’s Xinhua news agency. John Lee will be sworn in as Hong Kong Chief Executive, replacing Carrie Lam who has held the post since July 2017. The trip will be Xi’s first outside of mainland China since January 2020. As the number of COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong have been rising in recent weeks, it was unclear whether Xi would visit the city. But with the 25th anniversary of the handover coinciding with the swearing in of a new Hong Kong Chief Executive, China’s leader obviously decided a day trip to the city is worth the risk.
China’s military has called the recent transit of a US Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft over Taiwan Strait as being a deliberate attempt to disrupt the regional situation and endangered peace and stability. On Friday the US Poseidon flew over the strait separating the Chinese mainland and Taiwan. The flight came one day after Taiwan was forced to scramble fighters to intercept twenty-two Chinese aircraft operating in the Taiwanese air defense identification zone. All of this activity around Taiwan Strait comes days after the US government rejected a Chinese claim that the strait is not international waters.
The Chinese government has made official a sweeping overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system. The changes include restrictions on democratic representation in the city that will help Beijing consolidate its grip over the city-state. Since the passing of the national security law last June, the Chinese government has moved cautiously with regard to Hong Kong. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic the world was watching Chinese actions carefully and Beijing believed it best not to rock the boat. Now, the situation has changed enough for further action to be taken.
One major change will affect the Hong Kong legislature. The number of directly-elected representatives is going to be reduced to 20 from 35 while the amount of representatives appointed by Beijing will rise considerably. A vetting system will be installed to screen potential candidates for public office. This will allow Chinese government to select candidates who are loyal to Beijing and making certain pro-democracy voices in the city-state are minimized. These measures, coupled with the national security law passed last year, constitute the largest overhaul of Hong Kong’s government and political infrastructure since the handover in 1997. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, herself a figurehead of the Chinese government, has expressed unabashed support for the overhaul. “I firmly believe that by improving the electoral system and implementing ‘patriots administering Hong Kong’, the excessive politicisation in society and the internal rift that has torn Hong Kong apart can be effectively mitigated,” Lam said yesterday. Later in the day, she said the changes will be submitted to the Legislative Council next month and are expected to be fully approved by the end of May.
The mass resignation of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy lawmakers was largely viewed as a symbolic gesture. Meant to protest to Beijing’s recently imposed law allowing the disqualification of lawmakers deemed ‘unpatriotic’ and the subsequent removal of four legislators, the move might do more harm than good. Now the pro-democracy camp has minimal representation and can yield zero influence in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government. Essentially, they have cast away their primary platform to voice objections against Beijing’s growing encroachment on Hong Kong. If anything, the legislators did Beijing a favor by falling upon their swords. A selfish move undoubtedly conceived at a time when emotions were running high and reckless.
Beijing’s move was more astute and calculated. The National People’s Congress Standing Committee’s resolution empowering the Hong Kong government to bypass the courts and remove politicians seen as threats to national security comes to being as Washington’s attention is focused on the presidential election fallout. As a result, a decisive countermove by the US is not expected. Sanctions are being discussed currently by the US and Great Britain, yet the Chinese government is confident it can contend with them.
It is a moot point whether a coordinated Western response to China’s actions in Hong Kong materializes or not. Hong Kong is now almost entirely under Beijing’s control. The city’s governing officials are not even trying to hide the fact any longer. Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said a legislature that removes the opposition “is nothing to be ashamed of” and will allow bills to be passed “more efficiently.” Her remarks coincide with the Chinese government’s stated intention to impose “comprehensive rule” over Hong Kong to increase its identity as part of the People’s Republic of China.
The light of democracy in Hong Kong is in imminent danger of being extinguished permanently in the coming months.
In a move that has been anticipated since May, the Chinese government has enacted a comprehensive national security law for Hong Kong. The standing body of the National People’s Congress (NPC) approved the law unanimously on Tuesday and President Xi Jinping endorsed it almost immediately. The measure will be incorporated into Hong Kong’s Basic Law, and the city’s Chief Executive Carry Lam said the law will begin to take effect late Tuesday. It has long been feared by activists in Hong Kong that this law will be used to silence dissent by criminalizing it, and a brief glimpse at the final text of the law reveals the activists were correct to worry. Beijing will set up its own national security bureau to prosecute cases in Hong Kong. This bureau will not be beholden to Hong Kong’s laws. It will take its marching orders directly from Beijing and operate under the auspices of PRC law. An advisor will also be appointed to oversee the Hong Kong government on national security issues. It should be noted that under the national security law being found guilty of the following four offenses could bring on a sentence of life imprisonment: The highest degree of subversion, secession, foreign interference or terrorism. With Beijing now effectively in control of law and order in Hong Kong, interpretation of these offenses, and the law overall, will be tilted in favor of the mainland government a majority of the time.
Later tomorrow I will examine the repercussions the passing of this law is going to cause on the international front.
As the situation on the ground in Hong Kong continues to deteriorate, Beijing has increased preparations to mobilize paramilitary forces on the mainland to potentially move in and end the protests once and for all. State run media in China has broadcast videos of the People’s Armed Police assembling in Shenzen, just across the border from Hong Kong. The tone of Chinese government officials has also changed over the past twenty-four to thirty-six hours as well. The protests have been publicly labeled as ‘terrorism’ by one official, which harkens back to official proclamations in the weeks leading up to when government forces went into the far western area of Xinjiang in 2014.
Protesters in Hong Kong have escalated the demonstrations considerably in recent days. Their objective now appears to be disrupting the economy and infrastructure of the city as they push for the resignation of Carrie Lam, and concessions from Beijing. Demonstrations have flared into violence at Hong Kong’s airport, and at subway stations across the city. Protesters have thrown bricks and Molotov cocktails, while police have responded with rubber bullets and tear gas. With the protests continuing to spiral out of control, and the world watching closely, many are wondering when and how Beijing will ultimately respond.
The consensus for the moment is that Beijing has not reached the point of committing troops in Hong Kong yet. Even though the protests have become more violent, the number of protesters has fallen off as Hong Kong police adopt more forceful tactics like the use of rubber bullets, and tear gas. External variables are also playing a role, most notably keeping China’s international image favorable, and the ongoing trade war with the United States. China’s leadership prefers to sit by and hope the protests fade away, however, this will not last forever.
At what point will Xi Jinping decide enough is enough and send in troops from the mainland?