Hong Kong protests: alarmed by violence, especially at PolyU and Chinese University, Beijing drafted national security law for city
- Few had read between the lines when Beijing signalled last October it had run out of patience over the national security law
- A source has described Beijing’s frustration with the inaction of Hong Kong’s pro-establishment camp regarding Article 23
As Hong Kong marks a year since anti-government movement began, this article is third in a series analysing how key players have fared.
They did not know that the city was high on the agenda of the party’s closed-door fourth plenum, or that decisions taken there would have far-reaching implications.
Few read between the lines when the talks concluded with a communique calling for action to “establish a sound legal system and enforcement mechanism for safeguarding national security in the special administrative regions”.
The plenum was held four months after political unrest erupted in Hong Kong, sparked by a widely detested extradition bill, which would have allowed fugitives to be sent to mainland China and other jurisdictions with which the city had no exchange arrangement.
They attacked police officers on the front lines, hurling petrol bombs and bricks. The force responded with tear gas and other crowd dispersal weapons, only to be accused of brutality.
It was only two weeks ago that Vice-Premier Han Zheng, China’s point man on Hong Kong affairs, revealed that last October’s high-level party meeting proved to be the game-changer.
Meeting Hong Kong delegates to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing on May 23, Han disclosed that it was at the fourth plenum that the central government decided to impose a national security law on Hong Kong.
Hong Kong delegate David Lie Tai-chong, who was present at the 1½-hour meeting, said Han explained that Beijing felt action was necessary because of growing calls in the city for independence, self-determination and what it viewed as collusion between some individuals and foreign countries.
“The vice-premier said the legislation aimed to plug a legal loophole and would target a small group who endangered national security,” Lie said.
Hong Kong’s national security law is like ‘anti-virus software’, top Beijing official says
The resolution endorsed by China’s top legislature on May 28 referred to “the National People’s Congress’ decision on establishing a sound legal system and enforcement mechanism for safeguarding national security in the Hong Kong special administrative region”. That line mirrored the wording of last October’s plenum communique.
In 2003, the city government introduced a national security bill but it was abandoned after an estimated half-a-million people took to the streets to oppose the legislation, saying it would curb the rights and freedoms Hongkongers enjoyed under the “one country, two systems” principle.
Since the end of last year, there was talk within Hong Kong’s pro-establishment camp about options to introduce a national security law.
Beijing remains ‘very firm’ on national security law for Hong Kong, says city’s leader Carrie Lam
Mainland China’s sweeping national security law, endorsed by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) in 2015, stipulates that “maintaining the sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity of the state shall be the common obligation of all Chinese people including Hong Kong and Macau compatriots and Taiwan compatriots”.
It also says the state will prevent, stop and punish any conduct that betrays the country, splits the country, incites rebellion, or subverts or incites the subversion of “the people’s democratic dictatorship”.
When China’s top legislative body passed the law on July 1, 2015, then Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying assured residents that it would not apply to the city.
Beijing runs out of patience
When it came time to act, the central government did not impose its existing law on Hong Kong, although last year’s protests convinced Beijing it had to take matters into its own hands.
A mainland Chinese source familiar with Hong Kong affairs said Beijing concluded that given the political climate in the city, it would be impossible for the local legislature to pass a national security law.
The source asked: “Is there any guarantee that the national security legislation can be passed by the Legislative Council in the next few years?”
The answer was obvious.
The source also described Beijing’s frustration with the inaction of the city’s pro-establishment camp. Despite having the majority in Legco since 1997, it had failed to pass the national security law.
“They are more worried about the impact on their fortunes in elections if they support the government’s efforts to implement Article 23,” the source said.
Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a member of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s cabinet, the Executive Council, said Beijing’s decision to impose a national security law was understandable as Legco had failed to function effectively in recent years given the deeply divided political landscape.
“You can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. It will only turn worse after the Legco elections in September,” he said.
Pan-democrats who swept last November’s district council elections in the wake of the protests are hoping to repeat their success in the elections to select 70 Legco members.
If the camp secures a Legco majority, it will be able to paralyse government by blocking the budget and bills, a prospect the pro-establishment bloc is acutely aware of and dreads.
Beijing’s new men on Hong Kong matters
In February, Xia Baolong, vice-chairman and secretary general of the CPPCC, the nation’s top advisory body, was appointed director of the cabinet-level Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO). Incumbent Zhang Xiaoming was demoted to executive deputy director.
Xia is viewed as a trusted ally of President Xi Jinping. A former party secretary of Zhejiang province, Xia was a deputy chief to Xi for four years there in the mid-2000s.
A month earlier, in January, Luo Huining, a former party leader in Shanxi and Qinghai provinces, replaced Wang Zhimin as head of the liaison office in Hong Kong. Wang, the first political casualty of the city’s social unrest, was transferred to the history research unit under the party’s Central Committee.
The pro-Beijing politician said one of the major tasks set for Xia and Luo was to press ahead with national security legislation for the city.
Their experience and seniority, as well as the Xi connection, made it clear that Beijing saw the need to recalibrate the one country, two systems principle, which promised Hong Kong a number of freedoms not available in mainland China.
The arrangement is meant to continue until 2047, but political watchers viewed the senior-level changes as a sign that Beijing intended to exercise tighter control over Hong Kong.
Since April, the HKMAO and the liaison office have not pulled their punches on Hong Kong affairs.
The statements singled out opposition lawmaker Dennis Kwok, who had been presiding over the committee’s meetings since last October, for “paralysing” Legco with “malicious” intent, and said lawmakers were in breach of their oaths.
Pan-democrats said the criticism amounted to interference in the city’s affairs and was yet another example of Beijing tightening its grip on Hong Kong.
What does ‘one country, two systems’ mean?
The liaison office shot back, saying the two agencies were not circumscribed by Article 22 of the Basic Law, which states that no department directly under the central government may interfere in affairs which Hong Kong administers on its own.
On May 18, pro-establishment lawmakers seized control of the committee during a chaotic meeting punctuated by physical clashes, and reinstated Starry Lee Wai-king as chairwoman.
In Beijing, the final steps were being taken with regard to Hong Kong.
On May 21, a resolution to craft a new national security law for the city was added to the agenda of the annual session of the NPC.
Passed on May 28, it authorised the NPCSC to craft a law to “prevent, stop and punish” threats to national security by outlawing acts and activities of secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference in the city’s affairs.
Once the NPCSC passes the new law, it will be added to Annex III of the Basic Law and take effect, bypassing Hong Kong’s Legco. The process could be completed as early as the end of this month.
The veteran pro-Beijing politician said: “Most Hong Kong politicians across the spectrum failed to read between the lines of the fourth plenum’s communique. They underestimated the central government’s determination to safeguard national security, mistaking the message in that document to be mere rhetoric.”