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Beijing Has Lit Hong Kong’s Funeral Pyre
Hong Kongers will fight the imposition of mainland security measures fiercely but alone.
In 2015, five filmmakers set out to make a dystopian speculative film about the future of Hong Kong.
Produced on a shoestring budget by a largely volunteer crew, it envisioned a nightmarish decade for the city, culminating in a Hong Kong in which the police begin inflicting grotesque violence against dissenters, young children are indoctrinated in Chinese Communist Party ideology, and people are forced to learn Mandarin to have any prospect of good employment. They called it Ten Years.
Less than five years later, the film’s prescience is horrifying. What was intended as the very worst vision for the city has become a terrifying reality.
A police force still running on colonial hardware has run riot for a year, inflicting horrific violence against protesters with impunity—backed to the hilt by the authorities. Mass targeted arrests of high-profile pro-democracy activists and politicians on spurious charges have also been initiated, and on Thursday, in an act many view as the final nail in Hong Kong’s coffin, the dreaded Article 23, a mothballed provision in Hong Kong’s constitution providing for draconian national security laws, was unveiled in all but name.
While the official announcement has only proposed “legal and enforcement mechanisms in Hong Kong for defending national security” as one item among nine on the agenda for the National People’s Congress (NPC) to discuss in Beijing over the next week, the NPC’s role as China’s rubber-stamp parliament means the decision is all but final.
Although the details have not yet been published, it is likely that the legislation’s language will be deliberately ambiguous so as to allow the judicial interpretation of the laws to shift and harden over time. That’s in keeping with the mainland’s own intentionally vague and ever-shifting legal code, in which the only real authority is the Communist Party’s desire. The power of final interpretation on constitutional affairs lies not in any court in Hong Kong, or in any court at all, but in the NPC’s Standing Committee in Beijing, an explicitly political body completely subservient to the party elite. Within Article 23 itself, notions of “sedition” and “treason” are left undefined, except to state that they refer to them being undertaken against the Central People’s Government.
The timing of the announcement is not coincidental. Beijing has sought to weaponize the pandemic to achieve its geopolitical and strategic objectives in the international arena—and in Hong Kong. A gathering ban on more than eight people meeting currently applies in the city due to the coronavirus pandemic, rendering any immediate large-scale protests in response to the announcement de facto illegal.
This, combined with a widespread reluctance among the population to attend protests amid the risks of coronavirus transmission, means Beijing has made the most of a grim opportunity.
However, the fury the proposed legislation has sparked among pro-democracy activists will not diminish, and large-scale protests will eventually resume. Beijing’s announcement is long-anticipated and comes after months of intense speculation that such a move was around the corner. It’s a move that confirms the very worst fears of many pro-democracy supporters in the city, and it will not be forgotten as Hong Kong and the Beijing authorities prepare for what will be a summer of unprecedented defiance.
The tactics of front-line protesters, which already escalated in the autumn as pitched battles were fought on university campuses, will likely become both more violent and more sophisticated, even as the government attempts to characterize all resistance as terrorism. But such tactics could yet make Hong Kong genuinely ungovernable, throwing every assumption out of the window. Given the fury the announcement has sparked, chaos is a distinct possibility.
Yet while implementing draconian national security laws is an enormous gamble, if ever there was a time to do it, it is now.
The gathering ban means any mass escalation by the pro-democracy camp, even despite the extremely low number of coronavirus cases in Hong Kong, is rendered extraordinarily difficult in the short term. The annual Tiananmen Square massacre anniversary vigil, which would present an opportunity for a mass peaceful show of defiance, also cannot go ahead.
The details, let alone the wording, of the proposed legislation are yet to be revealed. However, there are reports from pro-Beijing media in Hong Kong that the bills will mimic Article 23 and be passed at the national level, then implemented in Hong Kong through Annex III of the Basic Law―to all intents and purposes bypassing the Legislative Council, requiring only a simple majority to pass an ordinance in order for it to be implemented. The pro-Beijing camp holds well over half the Legislative Council seats, as 35 out of the 70 total members are unelected, so this would be a straightforward process.
As with Article 23, it is likely that provisions contained within the legislation will be deliberately vague so as to provide for the judicial interpretation to shift over time as the authorities desire. Whole new laws could also be added as Beijing pleases, and if pro-democracy activists managed to break through the barriers put up against them electorally and won an unlikely majority in the Legislative Council elections this year, it could simply be bypassed by way of “promulgation”—a process by which Chinese laws can be implemented verbatim without legislative debate—or by the disqualification of pro-democracy members to ensure the legislation’s passage. In short, Beijing has implementation covered left, right and center. Now that the decision has been made, it will happen.
The legislation also threatens to throw the Legislative Council elections scheduled for September into chaos. Recent court rulings, including one delivered on Thursday, have largely thrown out Beijing’s past disqualifications of elected legislators. The district council elections last November in which the pro-democracy camp secured a landslide victory also only saw one candidate, high-profile activist Joshua Wong, barred from standing. The announcement is an indication that mass disqualifications of pro-democracy candidates are very much back in the cards, dashing hopes of a broadly free and fair election.
All eyes are now on the response from the international community. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has ramped up his long-standing anti-China rhetoric in recent weeks, taking a leading role in calls for an international investigation into China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. U.S. President Donald Trump also remarked briefly after the news broke that the United States would respond “very strongly” if Beijing pushes forward with the legislation’s interpretation.
There is one clear avenue open to the administration if they wish the U.S. response to be more than just harsh words, which would be to push to remove the special status afforded to Hong Kong in its annual review of the territory’s autonomous status, which is mandated by the Hong Kong Policy Act and the recently passed Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. Further actions could include Magnitsky Act sanctions being imposed against Hong Kong and Chinese government officials judged to be responsible for or complicit in any crackdown in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s special status means it is treated separately to mainland China in trade and commerce―so long as it remains “sufficiently autonomous” over its affairs. It has resulted in more than $43 billion in annual trade between the U.S. and Hong Kong, which would be severely threatened if the U.S. were to announce its withdrawal. Pompeo issued a stark warning to China as reports broke of the proposed legislation, stating that the United States’ decision on whether to continue to grant Hong Kong special status is “still pending.” Beijing’s announcement will serve as an acid test to examine if words will be followed with action.
Meanwhile in London, Beijing’s announcement was met with a mealy-mouthed response from the U.K.’s Foreign Office, saying only that the British government is “monitoring the situation closely.” As Britain continues to battle a coronavirus outbreak that has claimed the most deaths of any country in Europe, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab will be watched closely in the coming days to see if he takes decisive action.
Given the U.K.’s former colonial control over Hong Kong and the legal (not to mention moral) obligations which flow from that, the real game-changing move the British government could make would be to offer all “British national (overseas)” (BN(O)) citizens in Hong Kong full residency rights in the U.K., or extend the eligibility criteria for BN(O) citizenship to include all those born in Hong Kong after the handover to China in 1997.
BN(O) status—a form of second-class British nationality that does not bestow the right to live or work in the U.K.—has long been the subject of controversy. The mood among many in the ruling Conservative Party has shifted sharply from the talk of a “golden era” of Sino-British relations just five years ago, and extending the rights and eligibility of BN(O) citizenship is supported by many high-profile Conservative politicians. The opposition Labour Party would also likely support such an action, having recently also undergone a similar change in approach to China.
But on the ground in Hong Kong, these moves, while very welcome, would ultimately do little to change the situation. I spoke earlier with a friend who was recently elected as a district councilor in the pro-democracy camp’s landslide election victory last November. At the end of a long discussion, his final comment was: “The thing is, there are far too many people who love Hong Kong far too much for us to take this lying down.”
While this may be so, the reality is that as protesters chant, “Liberate our Hong Kong,” they will have to do so by themselves. It is difficult not to think that in this matchup between a superpower and a young, decentralized but undeniably heroic activist base, the protesters have brought a knife to a gun fight.