Hong Kong Legislator Dennis Kwok (郭榮鏗) was with his two children, hiking through the lush jungles of Victoria Peak last month, when he realized how far China was willing to go to quell dissent in the former British colony.
Kwok’s phone lit up with texts and calls asking about an alarming and unprecedented statement from China’s top agency overseeing Hong Kong.
It said that Kwok — an opposition lawmaker who was participating in a filibuster effort in the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo) — might have committed misconduct and broke his oath of office, offenses that could cost him his seat.
Illustration: Mountain People
“It ruined the day with my kids,” Kwok, 42, said.
Yet the London-trained lawyer also realized that “something fundamental had changed” in the months while Hong Kong protesters had withdrawn from the streets to escape the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The [Chinese] Communist Party [CCP] pulled back the curtain,” he said.
Last week, China intervened even more dramatically.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) government on Thursday announced that the Chinese National People’s Congress would write sweeping legislation into Hong Kong law to criminalize the harshest criticism of China and the ruling party.
Although details remain secret, a similar security bill withdrawn in 2003 carried life sentences and drew massive street protests. All could potentially become law without a local vote.
The move represents the biggest challenge yet to the “one country, two systems” framework set up to guarantee Hong Kong’s liberal institutions and capitalist financial system after its return to Chinese rule in 1997.
While the option of handing down such national security legislation has been in the territory’s Basic Law since the handover, Xi’s predecessors avoided exercising it due to widespread opposition and concern about damaging the territory’s reputation as a legal safe haven.
Now, China has decided to ignore critics such as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who on Friday said that the “disastrous proposal” could lead the US to reconsider the territory’s special trade status.
The action raises the stakes for another round of street protests ahead of the LegCo elections in September in which “pan-democrats” such as Kwok were hoping to gain their first majority.
“The Chinese have taken off the gloves in Hong Kong,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Surrounding the elections in September, there could be massive protests again.”
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥), attempted to reassure the international community on Friday that the territory would remain a “very free society, where freedom of expression, freedom of protest, freedom of journalism, will stay.”
The Hong Kong branch of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the provisions were necessary to ensure social stability and would affect “very few” people.
Hong Kong’s financial markets and independent courts have long provided global companies, entrepreneurs and the Chinese elite with a lucrative refuge from the mainland’s high taxes, capital controls and party-run justice system.
Moreover, Beijing gained international prestige by tolerating a raucous democracy under its authority.
All that began to change when Hong Kong last year erupted in historic protests to block Lam’s attempt to pass legislation that would have allowed the extradition of criminal suspects to the mainland.
Demonstrators paralyzed the territory for months, shutting down shops and keeping tourists away as they criticized China and demanded free elections to replace Lam.
In largely peaceful marches that drew more than 1 million people, protesters chanted: “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our times.”
One band of radicals broke into the LegCo on the handover’s anniversary, ransacking the chamber and defacing the territory’s emblem.
Many pro-establishment figures put the blame on the failure of Hong Kong’s government to reform the territory’s colonial-era security laws referring to “Her Majesty” with measures to protect the Chinese state.
None of Lam’s predecessors had tried since the 2003 effort failed.
“Beijing has clearly run out of patience with the Hong Kong government’s unsuccessful attempts to end the protest movement by enacting its own draconian security legislation,” said Hugo Brennan, principal Asia analyst for Verisk Maplecroft in London. “The proposed national security law is likely to prove a death knell for the ‘one country, two systems’ model and the facade of Hong Kong autonomy.”
The April 14 statement from China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office accusing Kwok of breaking his oath and other “sleazy tactics” was just one of a series of steps toward a more interventionist approach by Beijing.
The shift was first signaled in a communique from a CCP Central Committee meeting led by Xi in October last year, and quickly followed up a legislative official’s pledge to “exercise all powers vested in the central government” over Hong Kong.
Later, as the world was focused on a deadly novel coronavirus in central China just named COVID-19, Xi put someone in charge with a record of executing controversial policies.
On Feb. 13, China named Xia Baolong (夏寶龍) as director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office atop a newly revamped reporting structure that created a clear chain of command from Hong Kong to Beijing.
The choice of Xia, a former close aide to Xi, set off alarm bells. In 2014 and 2015, he had overseen a crackdown on Christian churches in Zhejiang Province, in which crosses were cut from the roofs of houses of worship.
Meanwhile, Luo Huining (駱惠寧), a cadre known for executing Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, was appointed as director of the Hong Kong Liaison Office.
It was Xia who on Thursday briefed Hong Kong representatives in Beijing on the plan to pass the new security law before the end of this week.
“They’ve got two guys who are totally not familiar with Hong Kong issues, and who have governed provinces in China in a heavy-handed way and think they can do the same in Hong Kong,” Kwok said. “They want to use a new strategy of terror, fear, attacks, criticism, direct intervention.”
Last month, as Hong Kong’s own COVID-19 outbreak began to subside and the territory’s old political fights resumed, the two officials turned their attention to the gridlocked council.
There pro-democracy lawmakers, including Kwok, had used a quirk in the rules to stop action by the body’s agenda-setting House Committee.
The statement from the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office accusing lawmakers of crimes and demanding action was seen by some lawyers as a breach of constitutional provisions banning interference by Chinese agencies.
The Hong Kong Liaison Office said that the restriction did not apply because the Basic Law was approved by China’s National People’s Congress and the council had created the agencies to oversee Hong Kong.
It was a sign of things to come. Days later, Hong Kong police arrested 15 high-profile democracy activists on charges related to participating in illegal rallies.
Several of those arrested were frequent targets of Chinese state media criticism, even though they were seen as having little role in the more recent “leaderless” protests.
“All these gestures are to show: ‘We’re in control. We’re going to crack down. You guys have to respect the parameters set down by Beijing and that political struggle is futile,’” said Joseph Cheng (鄭宇碩), a retired political science professor and veteran democracy activist.
Events accelerated on Monday last week as pro-establishment lawmakers, aided by security guards, seized control of the House Committee from Kwok and moved to pass legislation criminalizing disrespect for the Chinese national anthem.
On May 15, a police watchdog group had exonerated the territory’s police force from accusations of using excessive force against protesters, despite international criticism.
The moves have left Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp reeling just six months after winning 85 percent of seats in local council elections.
Now, many government critics fear that the new laws could be used to disqualify candidates for council seats or expel winners after the vote — actions the government has taken repeatedly in the past few years.
For Kwok, the statements showed he is a top target.
“We need to focus on the September election and tell people: ‘This may be the last election for Hong Kong,’” he said. “People really need to come out to vote.”
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