China Power | Politics | East Asia

China’s Strategy for Hollowing out Hong Kong

Beijing’s fixation on national security legislation is an alarming signal for Hong Kong’s future.

By Simon Shen for
China’s Strategy for Hollowing out Hong Kong
Credit: Flickr/ Studio Incendo

While the world is preoccupied with a fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing has been tightening its political grip on all aspects of Hong Kong’s civil society. Rumor has it that Beijing will push through legislating national security laws under Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law by unconventional means, such as massively disqualifying pro-democratic legislators or even directly applying a national law, widely argued as a major step to destroy the rights and freedom of Hong Kongers, and bring Chinese authoritarianism to Hong Kong.

After the 2019 protests, the administration of Carrie Lam, who theoretically is still leading the special administrative region of China, has little political capital at stake, with its legitimacy reaching rock bottom. The pro-government camp has dwindling prospects for the city’s upcoming Legislative Council election. The government‘s ”nothing to lose“ mentality is apparent from its recent blatant reinterpretation of the Basic Law’s Article 22 (another article that limits the influence of China’s offices in Hong Kong’s internal affairs). The debate is nothing new, but the pressure this time is quite different.

This article highlights the different strategies Beijing could adopt to enact Article 23 insidiously or under disguise to avoid backlash from the international community, while continuing to reap benefits from the city’s globally recognized special status. This seems to be part of Beijing’s brinkmanship to bring Hong Kong protesters and their supporters to their knees and move the city closer to authoritarianism. To counter these moves, Hong Kongers must define the boundaries beyond which Hong Kong falls into authoritarian rule and make a case as to why the city’s downfall is detrimental to the international community‘s interest.

The Long-Term Controversy Over National Security Laws

Back in 2003, the implementation of Article 23 was thwarted by the moderate pro-establishment politician James Tien. In face of overwhelming public disapproval of the law, he withdrew support and votes from his Liberal Party. However, 17 years later, it is hard to imagine Beijing following the old legislative playbook: start with a public consultation, followed by public discourse and political debate, and end with the majority rule. This playbook only works in peaceful societies ruled by a trustworthy government with integrity.

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The aftermath of 2003, as well as the 2019 protests, should have taught Beijing and the Hong Kong government a lesson: pushing through national security legislation in a flawed parliament controlled by the minority pro-government camp would inevitably set off another full city-scale protest — and undoubtedly more fierce and focused this time. Given the current government’s numerous displays of dishonesty, it is conceivable that they will embark on a less-traveled path to implement Article 23.

Strategy One: “Anti-Terrorism”

In principle, one possible strategy could be to directly enact Chinese national law across Hong Kong, which can be achieved by declaring a state of emergency in the city. However, this is risky business as it would tarnish the integrity of “one country two systems” and subsequently Hong Kong’s international standing. Beijing, a risk-averse regime, is also unwilling to see Hong Kong’s status as a middleman for laundering money disappear into thin air.

Instead, Beijing could be concocting a narrative that would see Chinese national law applied to Hong Kong while not damaging Hong Kong’s international standing and Beijing’s own interests. The key word in this script is “anti-terrorism.” As early as 2014, pro-Beijing scholars have been claiming the emergence of “local terrorist ideology” on Hong Kong soil. Since the anti-extradition bill protests last year, government rhetoric frequently described the protests, which caused no deaths at all in the entire year, with phrases like “inclination to terrorist ideology.” That was a signal to the world that Hong Kong’s internal conflicts had ballooned into a national security issue. This gives the government the legitimacy to justify the implementation of Chinese national laws across the highly autonomous region to counter terrorism. The Chinese government knows that if it can persuade the world that terrorism exists in Hong Kong, and that it is as severe as the terror threat facing many other nations today, the international community will be less critical of Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong. Enacting Chinese laws directly is a convenient path that will save Beijing from having to tackle Hong Kong’s internal conflicts, basically turning the Hong Kong issue into a nonissue.

Strategy Two: Stacking the Legislature by Disqualifying Candidates

An even bolder strategy was probably foretold by a recent incident where the Hong Kong government and Beijing’s agencies for Hong Kong affairs (HKMAO and the Liaison Office) jointly criticized lawmaker Dennis Kwok for filibustering, framing it as “misconduct in public office” and “violating his oath.” It is incomprehensible to claim that filibustering goes against a lawmaker’s main duty; rather, it is common understanding that legislative work includes debating the law and representing public opinion against unreasonable laws. In a parliament controlled by the minority, pro-democratic members representing the majority of Hong Kongers are forced to express their objections using means like filibustering. Wouldn’t a lack of different political opinions turn the legislative branch into a rubber-stamp institution?

The above allegation has set a dangerous precedent for twisting the logic behind a certain provision in the Basic Law to target opposing lawmakers. In other words, to fulfill Beijing’s interpretation of the principal requirement for holding public office in Hong Kong, one could be required to take a meticulously legalistic approach to uphold the Basic Law down to its every single wording. A public official, by this new definition, not only needs to support “one country, two systems” or object Hong Kong independence, but also must abide by every single provision in the Basic Law. Worst of all, based on the previous cases, whether an official’s words or actions oversteps a provision is up to Beijing’s interpretation of his/her “intent.”

If this approach is applied, in the next election, there might be additional official questions for screening candidates like the following: “The Basic Law states that the enactment of Article 23 is a constitutional duty. Failing to support Article 23 legislation violates the Basic Law. Do you support it?” This question would suffice to disqualify even moderate or even pro-establishment candidates like James Tien. Even if any pro-democratic candidates were elected, once Article 23 re-enters the legislative process, they could risk ouster by raising objections.

Despite the absurdity of this tactic, the Chinese regime may just be tempted enough if such a strategy could resolve two of China’s current nuisances — voices of dissent in the Legislative Council and the previous failure to implement Article 23.

Strategy Three: The “Boiling Frog Effect”

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Article 23 is not yet implemented, but the dystopian world that the protesters pictured in 2003 is already becoming reality. Regular citizens have been persecuted for “sedition” for sharing their views on social media or participating in legal protests; workers face retaliation for taking part in strikes; corporations are pressured to publicly side with the government’s stance; employees who have the “wrong” political views are fired; schools have been closely monitored for teaching material; protest-supporting fundraisers were framed for money laundering; a retweet or like may lead to persecution, under a colonial-era law. Only now have Hong Kongers woken up to their new reality — although the Basic Law technically protects citizens’ rights to speak, rally, march, demonstrate, and go on strike, the government could enfeeble civil rights by bending antiquated laws and legal provisions. The frequent abuse of law enforcement power on a small scale, such as improper arrests and police violence, is desensitizing the public and the international community. In a few years, Hong Kong will become unrecognizable. This is indeed a clever play on Beijing’s part to slowly strip away Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedom, without causing much international attention.

Counter-Strategies Against Beijing’s Brinkmanship

Beijing’s overarching goal is to hollow out Hong Kong but, at the same time, avoid major backlash from the international community, which could spell the end of the privileged global status of Hong Kong not granted to other Chinese cities. Beijing also aims at preventing single incidents that could cascade down into mass protests as seen in 2003, 2014, and 2019; and eliminating any resistance forces from within Hong Kong’s legislature. The tactics outlined above are typical in a game of brinkmanship.

In response, Hong Kongers in Hong Kong and on the so-called “international frontline” must know their strengths and bargaining chips on this negotiating table with Beijing.

Unlike Xinjiang and Tibet, Hong Kong is a city with transparency and free flow of information. Hong Kongers need to make a case to the world that the protests are not acts of terrorism. Some suggestions include comparing the Hong Kong protests to similar struggles in 20 or so other counties in the world at the present time, none of which were classified as terrorism; collecting  a large amount of concrete evidence of the disproportionate use of force by the Hong Kong police; and showing how enacting Chinese national laws in Hong Kong will end the city’s autonomy and spell disaster for international community‘s interests.

The Legislative Council is the institution that can counteract Beijing’s “boiling frog” strategy and to keep Hong Kongers’ hope alive in the system. Those who plan to run for legislative office must be prepared to be disqualified from running. If only individuals are banned, there need to be alternative candidates as back-up plans. However, if and when the disqualification process is applied broadly to entire camps of candidates (for example, all who object to Article 23), the pro-democracy camp must make a strong case to the Hong Kong and global public that this is the endgame for Hong Kong democracy. Then the incumbent popularly elected legislators will hold the internationally recognized mandate from the public and serve as the last resistance.

These recommendations delineates how the slogan “if we burn, you burn with us,” often seen in the protests, may play out in the game of international relations. If the national security laws are “passed” by a legislature that is jury-rigged in this manner, or if related national laws are directly implemented in Hong Kong, Hong Kongers should signal clearly to the world that it goes way beyond the promised “one country, two systems.” Crossing this red line by Beijing should be seen by the world as a blunt violation of its promised autonomy to Hong Kongers. At that time, if the international community led by the United States and the United Kingdom decided to revoke the “non-sovereignty entity” status of Hong Kong and regard the SAR as an ordinary Chinese city, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Dr. Simon Shen is the Founding Chairman of GLOs (Glocal Learning Offices), an international relations start-up company. He also serves as an adjunct associate professor in the University of Hong Kong, Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and associate director of the Master of Global Political Economy Programme of the CUHK.

The author acknowledges Jean Lin, Coco Ho, Chris Wong, Michelle King, and Alex Yap for their assistance in this piece.