Hong Kong’s Independence May Not Survive the Pandemic
The Chinese Communist Party has issued a resolution to promulgate a new national security law for Hong Kong, bypassing the city’s legislature, which threatens to radically curtail the city independence and throttle its pro-democracy movement.
The intent of the law, which was introduced on Friday at the opening of the annual session of the National People’s Congress, is to “prevent, frustrate and punish any secessionist or subversive activity, the organizing of terrorist acts, and other acts that seriously threaten national security, as well as activities of foreign and external interference in Hong Kong.” It requires Hong Kong’s government to “establish an organization and enforcement mechanism to protect national security,” but also empower Beijing’s national security authorities to “set up organizations in Hong Kong to fulfill their responsibilities” — meaning that mainland agents will be allowed to operate in the city. he broad references to secessionism, “subversive activity,” “other acts,” and “foreign and external interference” is the kind of authoritarian boilerplate that would give officials in Beijing the power to arrest pretty much any Hong Konger they don’t like. Hong Kong democrats are rightly concerned that the party will use it as a “one-size-fits-all” charge to jail activists on trumped-up allegations just as they are known to do on the mainland.
Wang Chen, vice-chairman of the NPC’s Standing Committee, claimed that the law would help China implement the “one country, two systems” principle that has governed Hong Kong’s relationship with mainland China since its handover from the U.K. in 1997. Most Hong Kong watchers, however, say it could effectively spell the end of that system, which Chinese President Xi Jinping has already done much to erode since taking power in 2012. Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam, loathed by pro-democracy activists as a puppet of Beijing, has expressed “full support” for the law and will happily enforce it. Even if Lam were not so compliant, the central government could make Hong Kong’s increasingly limited independence dependent on its government enforcing the law and enacting its own national security legislation that conforms with it.
The timing of this decision reflects an atmosphere of both danger and opportunity for Beijing. The law is a thinly-veiled challenge to the pro-democracy protest movement that launched in Hong Kong last summer. The COVID-19 pandemic put a significant damper on that movement but did not snuff it out entirely. Pro-democracy activists have been organizing an effort to win a majority in legislative elections set for September and block all bills originating from Beijing, but the new proposed law, which could be passed as early as June, would tighten China’s grip on the territory before they get the chance. Beijing might also use the law to harass and arrest activists, hobble the campaigns, and invalidate the candidacies of pro-democracy candidates.
Meanwhile, Xi is cognizant of the pandemic’s impact on the Chinese economy. In a striking parallel to his American counterpart Donald Trump, the paranoid Xi sees his legitimacy and political survival resting on his ability to deliver consistently high levels of economic growth. The virus has kneecapped the workforce in China just as it has in other countries — and Beijing is now trying to contain a new outbreak of COVID-19 in the northeastern province of Jilin. China’s economy is still expected to grow this year, but at a much lower rate than in recent years.