Arrests Sound the Death Knell of Dissent in Hong Kong
Authorities have detained 53 politicians, protest leaders, and unionists under Beijing’s national security law.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: Hong Kong authorities arrest many remaining pro-democracy politicians and activists under Beijing’s national security law, how China will react to violence at the U.S. Capitol, and more bad news for Alibaba founder Jack Ma.
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Hong Kong Authorities Launch Sweeping Attack on Opposition
Nearly every remaining prominent pro-democracy politician or protest leader in Hong Kong was arrested on Tuesday under Beijing’s draconian national security law—a sweeping attack on any opposition to the Chinese government.
The 53 people targeted include former Legislative Council members who resigned in solidarity earlier this year after the disqualification of fellow pro-democracy politicians, protest leaders and activists, and unionists. And for the first time, a non-Hong Kong citizen was arrested under the law, which critics have long warned could be used to target people globally.
In a particularly bleak development, the reason authorities provided for many of the arrests was their participation in the July 2020 primaries for the now-delayed Legislative Council elections. In other words, even the notion of a political opposition in Hong Kong is now criminalized. The police also harassed Hong Kong pollsters who participated in the primaries, who have now destroyed the data—anticipating that voting in the primaries could be used as an excuse for future arrest.
The Hong Kong authorities have been hammering the nails into the coffin of citizens’ civil rights for months, since the law’s introduction in June 2020. But the scope of the arrests is an escalation that will have a chilling effect on dissent in the city. It’s also a stark break with Beijing’s promises to preserve Hong Kong’s unique political situation until 2047.
The expected next U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has already condemned the arrests, as have European leaders. But that’s unlikely to deter Beijing. Rather, the crackdown indicates that further restrictions and mass arrests are likely, perhaps broadening out from leaders into the broader repression used in the mainland—including targeting the lawyers who defend those charged.
What We’re Following
China reacts to storming of U.S. Capitol. Pro-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) commenters are gleeful at the scenes of chaos in Washington on Wednesday, after U.S. President Donald Trump’s push to overturn the November 2020 election results culminated in armed supporters breaching the U.S. Capitol. Many in China have made comparisons to so-called color revolutions in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, which Beijing paints as U.S.-backed attempts to topple hostile governments.
The belief that the United States would collapse like the Soviet Union has circulated among members of the Chinese elite since the mid-2000s, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. Under President Xi Jinping, Chinese officials have been encouraged to study the Soviet collapse closely as an example of what mistakes China should avoid.
The scenes in Washington, so reminiscent of the Russian parliamentary violence of the 1990s, will only encourage such convictions, as has the botched U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s hard to say that they’re entirely wrong, given the precarious state of U.S. democracy—but the perception also likely to encourage riskier challenges to U.S. global power and more aggression from Beijing.
Meanwhile, many prominent anti-CCP figures in the diaspora remain Trump backers. Under Xi, the destruction of China’s online civil society means that relatively liberal pro-U.S. voices have disappeared, leaving space for conspiracists, grifters, and fanatics. The anti-CCP religious movement Falun Gong remains at the core of the new Trumpist media through the Epoch Times newspaper.
While eclipsed by the physical assault on Congress, the attempts by Republican figures such as Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley to challenge the election results and support Trump’s delusions also do real damage to the U.S. image. Both have been prominent opponents of the CCP, but it’s now easy for Beijing’s supporters to point to their hypocrisy in undermining democracy at home while claiming to promote it abroad.
Tech and Business
Where is Jack Ma? Alibaba founder Jack Ma has been absent from the public view for two months. He hasn’t been seen since the sudden halt of the initial public offering of Ant Financial, Alibaba’s fintech spinoff, after Ma made the mistake of criticizing regulators in a speech. Some have claimed that Ma fled the country last month, but the more likely scenario is simply that he is lying low.
Chinese billionaires always walk a fine line when it comes to the CCP, which fears any power broker other than itself. The charismatic and popular Ma certainly gave some CCP officials pause, but he has always expressed support for the party, including saying he would turn over his companies if the country needed it.
But the mood has clearly shifted against Ma—not just because of his error, but also because the CCP is taking a bigger role in managing private business. There are serious privacy and monopoly concerns about Ant Financial’s use of data and attempts to evade banking regulation, but it’s not the only target. China’s tech and business sector is increasingly bending toward the party’s will.
Meanwhile, the United States targets Alipay. Adding to Ma’s woes is Trump’s executive order earlier this week that bans U.S. citizens from doing business with eight Chinese firms, including Alipay. It’s unclear how the order will be enforced, both because the Biden administration may quietly roll it and because the Trump administration has done a poor job backing up previous orders in court. WeChat, which was banned amid much furor last year, is still available in the United States, and the government has lost a series of court decisions involving the case.
Advocates of the ban say that it prevents Chinese firms from making use of big data for anti-American purposes. That is a risky precedent, in part because it justifies China’s own restrictions on U.S.-based firms such as Facebook. As Zach Dorfman recently reported for Foreign Policy, China has made extensive use of stolen data—but data acquired legitimately by businesses is a much trickier question.
In another sign of the complexity of these legal and financial questions, the U.S. stock market has again delisted Chinese telecommunications firms following pressure from the Trump administration. For President-elect Joe Biden’s team, finding a way to tackle the real problems of business with China while cleaning up the mess of the Trumpist approach is one on a list of challenges.
That’s it for this week.