China’s Crackdown in Hong Kong Won’t Spare Foreigners

Business as usual is over in the city, whether companies like it or not.

Riot police in Hong Kong
Riot police disperse pedestrians during a rally in Central district of Hong Kong on May 27. Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

The submission of a national security decision document on Hong Kong at China’s National People’s Congress last week will enable the central government in Beijing to deploy new tools to suppress public protest and dissent in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, further undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy and raising new risks for foreign companies operating there.

Unable to enact policies to address the underlying grievances of Hong Kong citizens, particularly young people and the educated middle class, Beijing faces a sustained, motivated insurgency in Hong Kong. Its latest move, deploying what it calls “the relevant organs of the central government for the maintenance of national security,” effectively means that is it sending counterinsurgency forces to operate openly in Hong Kong against protesters and political opposition. China is no stranger to insurgencies (the Communist Party itself started out as one), and it has effectively dealt with them in Tibet and Xinjiang. Hong Kong is obviously next.

The “Decision of the National People’s Congress on Establishing and Improving the Legal System and Enforcement Mechanism for the Maintenance of National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (Draft)” was submitted for consideration and a (purely rubber-stamp) vote, which will pave the way for the National People’s Congress standing committee to draft and pass a National Security Law for Hong Kong.

The short, 840-character “decision” contains seven articles, the most important of which is Article 4, which permits Beijing to deploy what it calls “the relevant organs of the central government for the maintenance of national security” in Hong Kong, giving intelligence, military, Ministry of State Security, and Ministry of Public Security bodies enforcement powers and the ability to operate openly and independently there for the first time.

This development further erodes Hong Kong’s autonomy, fundamentally changing the political dynamic and business operating environment in the region. Effectively, once the decision takes effect, Hong Kong will be amalgamated into China’s police state—through a variety of tools already well-honed on the mainland, although with some adjustments for Hong Kong’s unique situation.

The central government’s justification for the move is Article 23 of the Hong Kong Basic Law, which stipulates that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, or subversion against China, including the theft of state secrets and political activities of foreign organizations. Hong Kong authorities attempted to pass a National Security Bill in 2003 under the Article 23 provision, but mass demonstrations and insufficient support within the Legislative Council caused it to be dropped. Sixteen years later, current Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam was forced to drop a proposed mainland extradition bill in September 2019 in the face of mass demonstrations that were sustained until late March of this year, when social distancing measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic began to take effect.

Beijing is acting now because it believes that the Hong Kong government is incapable of passing a law that would enable it to prevent Hong Kong from becoming, as it sees it, a base for subverting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), forcing it to turn to the National People’s Congress.

Large-scale demonstrations began in March 2019 in response to the Hong Kong Security Bureau’s proposal to amend the extradition law to enable suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial. Mass unrest resulted in the closure of Hong Kong’s airport and critical transport infrastructure including tunnels and the metro system that August. Lam’s attempts to assuage the public were failures, with protests continuing and even escalating after the proposed extradition bill was dropped, most notably the occupation and siege of Hong Kong Polytechnic University in November. The July 21 protest in front of China’s liaison office in the city and the defacement of the national emblem over the entrance was a particularly painful episode for the CCP—and a deep embarrassment for the officials at the liaison office itself, whose director was brusquely dismissed five months later.

The announcement of new national security law last week sparked new mass protests and clashes with police, after two months of calm during pandemic social distancing. Government messaging has again failed to reassure Hong Kong’s citizens or keep them off the street. Hong Kong’s first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa—speaking in Beijing at the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, where he serves as vice chairman—insulted protesters by arguing that Hong Kong needs the national security law because of supposed foreign interference. Echoing sentiments repeated by current leaders and Chinese official media, he attempted to convince Hong Kong citizens that the new law will not infringe on their freedoms, saying, “If you do not plan to engage in acts of secession, subversion, terrorism or conspiring with foreign influence in connection with Hong Kong affairs, you will have no reason to fear.”

Such assurances are not likely to assuage the public any more than the government’s unsuccessful efforts in the past have. Widespread discontent with the Hong Kong government and popular anger at heavy-handed police tactics compound public frustration with a bleak socioeconomic situation, particularly low social mobility fueled by considerable underemployment among college-educated youth, wage stagnation, and outrageously high housing costs. Large-scale protests are sustained as much by the government’s legislative missteps as by its inability to provide public goods to broad segments of the population.

Tung’s emphasis on foreign influence reflects an oft-repeated claim that foreign, anti-China forces are supporting and encouraging protesters to challenge Beijing from the security of Hong Kong, rationalizing that a national security law is needed to deal with it. With little actual evidence of foreign interference, however, the “hostile foreign forces” line is essentially a fig leaf used by Beijing to deflect attention and responsibility for its failed approach to peacefully integrating Hong Kong into the mainland. Rather than addressing the underlying issues causing widespread popular discontent or admitting to policy failures, Beijing reverts to blaming external forces seeking to weaken China.

Despite behind-the-scenes support from mainland intelligence, state security, and police forces, Hong Kong police have been unable to use force to stop demonstrations, some of which numbered in the millions of participants. Importantly, the government has been unable to identify and detain organizers or leaders of the movement, who have used technology and surreptitious collective leadership structures to mobilize protesters and avoid arrest.

It is doubtful that China will use the same tools of suppression in Hong Kong that it used in Western China. Hong Kong’s conditions are different and will call for different means, but China’s national security organs have a well-used playbook for suppression and are likely to lean on it.

China’s state security organs will have a large suite of tools to crack down on undesirable citizens in Hong Kong, including unrestricted surveillance, high-tech databases and apps, broad latitude to define what is considered criminal (using vague terms such as “terrorism” and “subversion”), and an unconstrained security force able to administratively detain people accused of national security offences. Beijing has the ability to quickly scale up national security infrastructure to coerce, detain, and reeducate citizens that it considers to be a threat on a very large scale.

The Ministry of State Security, which was originally modelled on Russia’s KGB, will be a key organization directing the Hong Kong pacification effort. It will be but one part of a coordinated, all-of-government effort, which could include the United Front Work Department, the Ministry of Public Security, and other departments under the State Council, in addition to domestic security and intelligence units under the Central Military Commission, which commands the People’s Liberation Army and the People’s Armed Police.

With the advent of Chinese state security forces operating in Hong Kong, the environment for foreigners will change. Foreign businesspeople are mistaken to think the new national security law will not apply to them or their activities, even if they avoid participating in public protests or online commentary. Beijing’s definition of national security includes finance and economic activities, as foreign hedge fund managers learned when financiers were detained for shorting stocks during the 2015 market crash in Shanghai. Journalists, businesspeople, and other visitors will soon be subject to arbitrary arrest and detention in Hong Kong, just as they are on the mainland. Even though Hong Kong maintains an independent judicial system, security bureaus under the authority of the central government answer to the CCP, making it doubtful that Beijing will subject its agents to oversight by independent Hong Kong bodies.

Initially, mainland security forces operating in Hong Kong will focus on identifying and neutralizing undesirable Hong Kong citizens who they perceive pose a threat to the CCP, which would include any foreign individuals and organizations that support them.

More ominous is what organizations such as the Ministry of State Security will do once protests have been tamped down. Rather than return to the mainland, they will likely continue their mission of defending the CCP and perform the same functions in Hong Kong that they perform in China. In addition to counterintelligence, they will run ops and collect intelligence on foreigners, including journalists and businesspeople. They will also provide support to state-owned enterprises, which could include providing intelligence on foreign competitors operating in Hong Kong or stealing intellectual property and proprietary business information using cyber-intrusions or other tradecraft.

It is unclear at this point if Beijing will commit sufficient resources to effectively suppress and end Hong Kong’s large-scale domestic unrest. That would take considerable effort, time, money, and ruthlessness, which Beijing possesses abundantly, as well as the political will to exert control over Hong Kong’s society to the same degree as the rest of the country, which it has not yet demonstrated and the long-term costs of which are unknown. Beijing has successfully crushed popular insurgencies in Tibet and Xinjiang, however, indicating that it has the strategy and means to do so in Hong Kong should it determine that the local risks to the CCP outweigh the economic benefits of Hong Kong’s free society.

Drew Thompson is a former US Defence Department official responsible for managing bilateral relations with China, Taiwan and Mongolia. He is currently a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

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