“Beijing will not be able to establish iron rule over Hong Kong without destroying the territory.” Or so I wrote in late 2019. By 2021, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seems bent on doing whatever it takes to make the “city of protest” safe for the regime, no matter the cost.
On June 30, 2020, the eve of the 23nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to Chinese rule, Beijing imposed a national security law (NSL) – or, more accurately, a regime security law – to “prevent, stop, and punish” the crimes of “secession,” “subversion,” “terrorism,” and “collusion with foreign forces.” These terms are vaguely defined to cover any form of dissent.
As of May 17, 2021, national security police have made 107 arrests under the law, with 57 prosecuted, among whom the majority have been denied bail. The first case, that of Tong Ying-kit, is going to trial without a jury. Beijing’s handpicked national security judges are very likely to convict the accused, with punishment ranging from three years to life imprisonment. The NSL decidedly turns Hong Kong away from its rule of law tradition.
This is Beijing’s response to the explosion of anger and frustration in 2019: If Hong Kongers do not want to be extradited across the border to mainland China, the central government simply brings its secret police and public security agents to openly operate in the city. The NSL effectively abrogates Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which states that “no department of the Central People’s Government… may interfere in the affairs” of the special administrative region. The NSL established the Office for Safeguarding National Security to “guide, oversee, and supervise” local officials, with a budget of over US$1 billion for 2020-21. Within weeks, Beijing officials and agents swiftly moved into the Metropark Hotel in Causeway Bay, where most protests traditionally started. The office has since expanded so fast that it further took over the Island Pacific Hotel in April 2021.
The perceived national security threat the new law is intended to handle is precisely the nonviolent collective action that took center stage in 2020. The central government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office condemned the primaries for “turning Hong Kong into a base for ‘color revolution,’ infiltration and subversion activities against the country.” Luo Huining, director of Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, said that the opposition would never be allowed to take over half of the legislature to “seize governance power.” Beijing expressed the same view about strikes and boycotts, whose goal must be “to paralyze the Hong Kong government” and “seize the power for governing the Special Administrative Region.” The general strikes on August 5, 2019 were denounced as “radical violations of public order and laws, challenging the bottom lines of ‘one country, two systems.’”
Why did Beijing elevate elections and unionizing to national security threats? As Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam put it, the entire opposition represented the “enemy of the people.” This is the CCP’s code for an all-out struggle.