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Losing patience with Hong Kong’s lawmakers, Beijing has moved to draft national security legislation for the city, expected to come into effect soon. Illustration: Perry Tse

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.

When the Chinese Communist Party elite wrapped up their top-level meeting in Beijing on October 31 last year, the event went largely unnoticed by most people in Hong Kong.

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”.

Even political observers and politicians missed the signal that Beijing was ready to impose a national security law tailor-made for Hong Kong, and was no longer waiting for the city’s lawmakers to pass their own legislation.

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.

Delegates applaud as the result of a vote on the draft resolution for the controversial national security law for Hong Kong is displayed on a screen during the closing ceremony of the third session of the 13th National People’s Congress in Beijing. Photo: EPA-EFE
Although the bill was eventually withdrawn, the demonstrations continued and widened into increasingly violent anti-government, anti-mainland Chinese protests. Masked radicals destroyed traffic lights, set street fires, attacked police stations, vandalised MTR facilities, shops and banks, and occupied the city’s airport and universities.
Protesters vandalise facilities at Tung Chung MTR station. Photo: Edmond So

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.

A source familiar with the central government’s thinking said Beijing’s patience wore thin as the protests became increasingly violent, with no end in sight. The central government began viewing Hong Kong as the weak link in national security, and felt a loophole had to be plugged.
Han Zheng, China’s vice-premier. Photo: Bloomberg

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.

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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

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.

Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini constitution, requires the city’s government to enact a national security law prohibiting “acts of treason, secession, sedition, or subversion”. However, the law has not been passed by the city’s legislature since Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997.

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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

Beijing remains ‘very firm’ on national security law for Hong Kong, says city’s leader Carrie Lam
A veteran Beijing-friendly politician said some pro-Beijing figures raised the idea of adding China’s existing national security law into Annex III of the Basic Law, a move that would make it effective in the city. They said there could be a clause to delete the addition once Hong Kong introduced its own national security law.

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.

PolyU burns as radical protesters clash with police. Photo: Sam Tsang

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.

What finally forced the issue, according to a source, were the violent clashes last November at the campuses of Chinese University and Polytechnic University.
Students protesting at Chinese University raise a flag with their slogan. Photo: Sam Tsang
Radical protesters turned the campuses into war zones, where they produced and amassed petrol bombs by the thousands. During a 13-day siege of the PolyU in Hung Hom, radicals holed up inside set fire to a police armoured vehicle, injured an officer in the leg with an arrow, and left the campus wrecked and filthy.
You can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. It will only turn worse after the Legco elections in September
Ronny Tong, executive councillor

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.

Beijing has lost its patience with Hong Kong’s Legco for its inability to pass the national security law, and recent chaos between political sides. Photo: Nora Tam

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.

Hong Kong Exco member Ronny Tong. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

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.

Opposition candidate Jimmy Sham (right) celebrates his win at the district council elections. Photo: AP

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.

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Beijing’s new men on Hong Kong matters

The central government’s original plan was to announce the national security law for Hong Kong in March, when the NPC was scheduled to hold its annual meeting, according to a pro-Beijing politician. However, the Covid-19 pandemic delayed the meeting until last month.
The politician also highlighted the changes at the top of two key Beijing institutions overseeing Hong Kong affairs.
Xia Baolong, vice-chairman and secretary general of the CPPCC, the nation’s top advisory body, was appointed director of the HKMAO. Photo: Wang Zhou

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.

Luo Huining took over as head of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong. Photo: Bloomberg

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.

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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.

Civic Party’s Dennis Kwok. Photo: Nora Tam

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?

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.

Most Hong Kong politicians across the spectrum failed to read between the lines of the fourth plenum’s communique
Pro-Beijing politician

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.”

Previous articles in the series discussed police strategy and the future of a movement beaten into retreat by a pandemic and security law.