The Debate | Opinion

Xi’s Strategic Folly: Why a New National Security Law Highlights China’s Insecurities

Xi Jinping’s move reflects Beijing’s insecurities over Hong Kong.

By Manoj Kewalramani and Rohan Seth for
Xi’s Strategic Folly: Why a New National Security Law Highlights China’s Insecurities
Credit: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

Last week was among the most critical in Hong Kong’s history since the 1997 handover of the territory to the People’s Republic of China. On Thursday, the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s top legislature, approved a draft decision to pursue enacting new national security legislation by a vote of 2,878-1, at its annual session in Beijing, with six abstentions. Over the past few days, there’ve been a spate of demonstrations and crackdowns in the city amid concerns that the new legislation would be the end of Hong Kong’s autonomy.

The law, which is likely to be enacted by late-August, comes in the wake of a tumultuous year of protests in the city. It will reportedly ban activities deemed as “treason, secession, sedition and subversion.” Under Article 4 of the draft law, Beijing will be able to set up agencies in Hong Kong under the guise of national security. It also appears that law itself does not necessarily have to be debated by Hong Kong’s legislators and can be placed under an annex of the Basic Law, the mini constitution that promises wide-ranging autonomy to Hong Kong and protects rights such as freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.

Hong Kong’s stock market, which has suffered a volatile week, continued to trade in the red on Thursday. Prior to the NPC announcement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formally intimated to the U.S. Congress that Hong Kong was “no longer autonomous from China,” marking the beginning of a fundamental change in Washington’s approach to the territory. Under the recently passed Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, the United States could potentially sanction officials for rights violations in the territory. In addition, a bipartisan bill sanctioning Chinese officials and entities who enforce the new national security law in Hong Kong is in the works in Congress. Investors fear the erosion of rule of law and a great power clash that would damage Hong Kong’s stability and position as Asia’s financial hub.

The fact that Beijing is pursuing this new law isn’t surprising. In a broad sense, this is part of the attrition strategy that the Communist Party has adopted in dealing with the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. In a paper earlier this year, we outlined the different instruments that Beijing has been using as part of this strategy. These included coercive use of the law, calibrated force, digital surveillance, media and narrative contestation and economic carrots and sticks.

While there was a lull in activities in the first few months of the year owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, from late February onward it became clear that Beijing was doubling down on its approach. There were fresh charges filed against people like Apple Daily’s Jimmy Lai. Opposition politician Cheng Lai-king was arrested on sedition charges for a Facebook post. Thereafter, in mid-April, there were more arrests of pro-democracy politicians, while the central government’s point person in Hong Kong, China Liaison Office Director Luo Huining, emphasised the need for a new national security law. In May, the first of the trials against a protester accused of rioting last year, ended with a four-year sentence. That was followed by additional mass arrests at a Mother’s Day protest, and the publication of a controversial report exonerating the Hong Kong police in terms of its handling of the protests last year and complaints of brutality. Finally, then over the last week, we’ve witnessed clashes in the Legislative Council, with pro-democracy lawmakers being blocked from voting in the election for a key committee chairperson.

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In our assessment, these tougher measures by the central leadership are also reflective of the relative success of the 2019 protests. That might sound odd, given the crackdown and challenges that lie ahead for pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. But if one examines the movement from the perspective of disruptive, narrative and electoral capacities, the gains made are clear.

The disruptive capacity of the protests is evident by the large numbers of individuals who have repeatedly taken to the streets over the past year and continue to do so. Another metric for this is the economic impact of disruption. The protests along with the pandemic have led to historic contraction of Hong Kong’s economy. Expect these challenges to intensify with a new round of agitations against the national security legislation.

Sustaining these will require public and perhaps even broader support from international actors. Over the course of the 2019 protests, Hong Kongers used mainstream media and social media rather effectively to capture the world’s imagination. They projected the image of the movement’s demands as legitimate — in that they fell within the ambit of the Basic Law — along with the protesters as being orderly, peaceful and civic-minded. For instance, in June 2019, a video surfaced of a sea of 2 million protesters making way for an ambulance. The Hong Kong Police and PRC state media, on the other hand, sought to contest this narrative, calling the protesters “rioters” and accusing them of attacking police officers with petrol bombs, bows, arrows, and metal balls. The narrative contest has impacted Hong Kongers’ perception of the police and state, altered perspectives on the region’s economic prospects and placed it at the center of a broader geopolitical contest between China and the United States. Now, there’s likely to be a more bitter narrative battle, which will have further policy consequences.

While it’s still early days, expect the new national security legislation to be cleared by the NPC before the Legislative Council elections in Hong Kong in September this year. The LegCo is Hong Kong’s top lawmaking body. It has 70 members, and only 35 are elected by popular vote. 30 seats are filled by “Functional Constituencies” that represent special interests like banking and trade (and have historically been pro-Beijing). The structure is such that Beijing will never lose the majority. But given the 2019 protests and the rising dissent toward China, it would be right to fear sufficient gains by the pro-democracy leaders after the district council elections in November last year. Enough seats in the LegCo would allow these individuals to stymie the central leadership’s broader agenda.

Considering the above, instead of reflecting strength, Xi Jinping’s gambit of a new national security law is indicative of the central leadership’s insecurities. The successes of the protests, which still enjoy significant public support in Hong Kong, are prompting the Communist Party to adopt measures that are likely to prove self-defeating in a strategic sense. For sure, this will not bode well for Hong Kong, but neither is Beijing going to end up better off or more secure.

Manoj Kewalramani is a fellow in China studies at the Takshashila Institution. Rohan Seth is a policy analyst at the Takshashila Institution.