Later this week at the annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) the government of the People’s Republic of China is expected to present a plan to significantly reform Hong Kong’s electoral system. The few details of the plan which have come to light suggest the plan will bring major changes to Hong Kong politics and place more pressure on pro-democracy activists and politicians in the territory. The plan comes in the midst of an ongoing crackdown on political dissent in Hong Kong. Remarks made last week by senior Chinese official Xia Baolong indicate the plan is a series of systemic changes designed to allow only candidates loyal to Beijing, and hand-selected by the Chinese government, to hold public office in Hong Kong. Even though no specific details were mentioned, the tone of Xia’s remarks seem to suggest changes to how Hong Kong’s legislature is elected at the very least.
Pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong were fast to denounce the planned changes. “It totally destroys any hope for democracy in the future,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, a pro-democracy former member of Hong Kong’s legislature. “The whole concept of Xia Baolong is that the Communist Party rules Hong Kong and only those that support the party can have any role.” Lee is currently on trial for unlawful assembly charges stemming from a protest in the summer of 2019.
With Hong Kong now a major roadblock for Sino-US relations, part of Beijing’s motivation for locking up the political future of the territory is to remove Hong Kong from the gameboard. The national security law, crackdown on pro-democracy activists and now the coming plan are all components of that action. The moment is approaching when Hong Kong will irreversibly enter the mainland’s sphere of influence entirely. The moment that happens, Washington will no longer be able to factor Hong Kong into its future US-China policies and dialogue.
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.
The National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp legislative body, has approved a national security law that asserts Beijing’s authority over Hong Kong. The law is expected to take effect by September will authorize the Chinese government to prevent “secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference” in the semi-autonomous city. In simpler terms, the security practices in effect on mainland China will be coming to Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong itself there is growing fear the new law signals the death of the ‘one country, two systems’ agreement reached between China and Great Britain in 1997 when control was handed over to China. The law will give the city government, with the oversight and participation of mainland authorities, broad powers to quell unrest. A heavy-handed crackdown is expected as soon as the law is enacted.
In the coming weeks, as the Chinese government works out the details of the legislation more will become known about the fate of Hong Kong. Specifically, how much autonomy remains, and how tightly mainland China intends to tighten its grip. The United States is already moving forward under the premise Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from the mainland. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo informed Congress of this yesterday, a move seen as progress towards ending the city’s unique trade status. Hong Kong is currently exempt from the trade restrictions in place against Beijing. This may not be the case for long.
Hong Kong’s independence is what made it a global financial center. The new law throws the city’s future as a financial capital into limbo. Singapore is a likely candidate to fill its shoes in a worst-case scenario, but China will resist. If Hong Kong is to lose its status as the financial hub of mainland Asia, Beijing will want the next hub to be Shanghai.
China’s latest power move with regards to Hong Kong’s autonomy has prompted the White House to warn that the US might respond by placing heavy economic sanctions on China. On Friday China introduced draft legislation at the annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) that will tighten Beijing’s control of Hong Kong, while simultaneously draining away a large portion of the city-state’s sovereignty. The legislation will introduce national security law in Hong Kong aimed at rooting out secession, subversion, terrorism, and foreign interference. In part this will be achieved by granting Beijing power to set up institutions in the city responsible for ‘defending national security.’ In other words, national law enforcement, and intelligence agencies will operate inside of Hong Kong along with the city’s own law enforcement apparatus.
Voting on the bill is set to take place on 28 May.
Details of the legislation are light for the moment, but many activists, and Hong Kong residents fear the end of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, and a coming crackdown on the civil liberties of all Hong Kongers. The White House has taken the position that the draft legislation violates the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and will trigger sanctions. US officials have already started coming out against the legislation, and its likely President Trump will address the matter following the holiday weekend.
Thousands of Hong Kong residents took to the streets on Sunday protesting the planned law. The protests became violent at times and Hong Kong police used tear gas, and water cannons against the protesters. The demonstration was unauthorized by city officials, and went ahead in violation of the city’s social distancing regulations. As the vote date draws nearer these protests will almost certainly grow in size, and determination. With the future now cast in doubt, many young Hong Kong residents will have nothing to lose by letting the world know their feelings about what Beijing is attempting to do.