Commentary: The intractable tug of war between China and Hong Kong

SINGAPORE: Two months ago, when the most senior mainland official in Hong Kong openly urged that national security legislation be imposed “as soon as possible”, the writing was already on the wall.

On May 28, China’s highest lawmaking authority, the National People’s Congress (NPC), followed through. It voted for plans to draft legislation that would punish secession, subversion of state power, terrorism and acts that endanger “national security”.

All this was déjà vu for observers like myself. The last proposed security bill triggered unprecedented mass demonstrations in July 2003.

Hong Kong society had been deeply unhappy with the economic downturn and poor handling of the SARS epidemic earlier that year — perhaps an eerie parallel to recent events.

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With about half-a-million people marching on the streets, a record-setting turnout at the time, the bill simply had to be withdrawn. It led to the exits of several top government officials, while sending then Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa’s public standing into an irreversible decline.

The bill became so toxic, subsequent governments equivocated on the idea of pursuing it. That is until Beijing finally decided to take matters into its own hands.

The current security proposal appears to have expanded the scope set prior in the 2003 bill. Notably, it will outlaw not only “acts” but also “activities” deemed a security threat, applying to both organisations and individuals.

READ: Hong Kong’s controversial security law: What is it and why does China want it?

Further, critics argue the legislation will cast aside existing restrictions over the presence of mainland security agents in Hong Kong. Chinese security agencies may set up permanent branches to operate in the name of national security.

But much will ride on the details of the legislation, and the NPC Standing Committee has been charged with formulating them.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam attends the opening session of NPC in Beijing
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam wearing a face mask following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak attends the opening session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China May 22, 2020. (Photo: Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)

The timing of the national security bill unfortunately coincided with an important date for Hong Kong’s civil society, rousing many sensitivities. Many had been gearing up for the annual candlelight vigil to commemorate the Jun 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square incident.

Despite police banning vigils this year out of COVID-19 fears, thousands gathered in Victoria Park to pay their respects.

In any normal year, approving such a controversial bill so close to the Tiananmen anniversary would be tempting fate. So why is Beijing pursuing this now, of all times?

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BREWING UNREST

With the virus situation slowly improving and summer holidays on the horizon in Hong Kong, protesters are bound to head back to the streets. Frustration over the extradition bill and police action to protesters in 2019 has not subsided.

In the previous Legislative Council poll in 2016, buoyed by a historic turnout, voters elected several young, radical Beijing sceptics to power. Similarly, pro-Beijing parties suffered landslide losses in last November’s district council election. There are worries of a repeat of events.

Another round of summer protests that risk stoking lasting public anger could reshape the pivotal Legislative Council election set to take place in September.

READ: Commentary: Protests in Hong Kong may soon be a thing of the past

Indeed, thousands have already turned up in the last few weeks to protest the proposed security bill, as well as another that seeks to criminalise those who insult the Chinese national anthem.

Police have responded with tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons, and arrests — a scene Hong Kongers are familiar with by now.

READ: Hong Kong: Nearly a year of unrest

BEIJING’S SIEGE MENTALITY

In Beijing’s eyes, Hong Kong has been a base for foreign subversion and subterfuge. Last year’s chaos was proof of hostile activities by foreign elements that have it out for China, or so the story goes.

Chinese state media and government spokespersons have consistently maintained that “Western ideologues” and “black hands” are seeking to engineer a “colour revolution” in the special administrative region.

READ: Commentary: Could ‘black hands’ be behind the Hong Kong protests?

About a million people took to the streets of Hong Kong on June 9 to protest a proposed bill that
About a million people took to the streets of Hong Kong on June 9, 2019 to protest a proposed bill that would allow extradition to mainland China AFP/Philip FONG

More importantly, the anti-extradition bill demonstrations last year have reaffirmed Beijing’s diagnosis that Hong Kong can be an easy entry point for foreign forces to hurt China’s standing by instigating unrest.

To Chinese top leaders, US responses to the protests, such as criticisms of police brutality, meetings with Hong Kong activists and the passing of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, as well as its recent decision to strip the city of its US economic privileges confirm that narrative.

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Exacerbating China’s siege mentality is the worsening geopolitical outlook. US President Donald Trump has taken aim at China for the coronavirus outbreak.

The China-US trade war is increasingly bruising, while tensions are rising in the South China Sea, not to mention the Taiwan angle coming into play with strong statements made by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.

With the world economy failing, domestic unemployment on an uptick, and fears of a second wave of COVID-19 infections lingering, it looks likely that Beijing will be extra-vigilant about perceived sources of instability.

Hence, a quick tried-and-tested fix has been prescribed for the “Hong Kong problem,” the city that threatens “the dam of national security”.

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Earlier this year, Beijing had set the stage to enhance greater controls over the city and strengthen its pulse over the situation there.

Personnel reshuffles and the reorganisation of Beijing’s liaison office to Hong Kong, including appointing an ally of President Xi Jinping as head and elevating the rank of the party group overseeing the city’s affairs, show that Beijing is paying greater attention to affairs there.

HONG KONGERS’ CONCERNS

Hong Kong’s traditional long-drawn legislative process tends to offer opportunities for public protests. Activists have often turned the legislative building and its surrounding districts into the locus of fierce protests for the reversal of controversial proposals, occasionally successfully.

This happened with the 2003 security law, the 2014 to 2015 electoral reform, and last year’s amendments to the extradition law.

Pro-democracy demonstrators march holding their phones with flashlights on during a protest to mark
Pro-democracy demonstrators march holding their phones with flashlights on during a protest to mark the first anniversary of a mass rally against the now-withdrawn extradition bill, in Hong Kong, China June 9, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

While going through the NPC to pass such a law is within Beijing’s remit, Hong Kongers are concerned Beijing had chosen to bypass the city’s legislature, removing the possibility of sustained large-scale public opposition.

Hong Kongers are worried about what this bodes for the territory’s relationship with China looking to 2047 when it is fully returned to China.

Many have previously taken Beijing at its word that nothing changes till 2047. More are viewing recent developments as Beijing playing the long game as it prepares the political ground for a smooth and complete takeover.

Plans are also already afoot on the economic and cultural front. The recently unveiled Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area initiative, for instance, would not only pave the way for Hong Kong’s economic and cultural integration with the mainland, it would remind Hong Kongers of their “historic responsibility” to their “motherland”.

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PROTESTERS’S GAME PLAN

To continue pressing their cause in a post-pandemic terrain, protesters are likely to hold fast to the “be water” organising philosophy.

Being diverse and tactically flexible seems to have contributed to the unexpected enduring momentum behind the anti-extradition bill movement.

It will be tremendously difficult for ongoing demonstrations to reach the heights of those in 2019. The possible spread of COVID-19 will dampen the enthusiasm of prospective demonstrators.

Social distancing measures and curbs on large-scale gatherings will remain in some form, limiting the scale of any planned assemblies.

Woman waves a black Hong Kong flag during a candlelight vigil ahead of the 31st anniversary of the
A woman waves a black Hong Kong flag during a candlelight vigil ahead of the 31st anniversary of the crackdown of pro-democracy protests at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, after police rejects a mass annual vigil on public health grounds, in Hong Kong, China June 3, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Moreover, many Hong Kongers have been disappointed with and demoralised by the government’s response to the protests. Some are even considering voting with their feet and migrating, as the future of Hong Kong becomes ever more uncertain.

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With stakes so high on both sides, protests and their consequences in 2020 will probably be bloodier, messier, and more violent.

Yet, there remains a sizable number of moderates committed to peaceful protest. They believe this yields favourable results, but their success remains to be seen.

It is unlikely that public opposition will fizzle out easily.

Upcoming traditional protest events, such as the Jul 1 annual rally, will provide clues on how things are shaping up. They should reveal any shifts in protesters’ persistence and the city authorities’ threshold of tolerance.

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But if both Beijing and Hong Kong leaders choose to close off more channels for public expression of demands, some protesters may feel more cornered and more willing to contemplate drastic action.

In that event, overt calls for Hong Kong independence, a hitherto marginal position, may appear at growing frequency and with greater appeal.

Even if claims for independence are unrealistic and lack legal basis (Article 1 of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, states clearly that the city constitutes an “inalienable part” of China), the underlying symbolic vision for a defence of status quo may well catch fire.

READ: Commentary: Hong Kong protests in 2019 resolved nothing

Looking beyond, an indirect casualty of this drama is “one country, two systems” as a model for talks of Taiwan’s reunification with mainland China. As it becomes less appealing and less viable for both sides, Beijing’s attempts at reclaiming Taiwan will likely be more forceful.

If so, threats to Chinese national sovereignty could then be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yew Wei Lit is a postdoctoral fellow at Yale-NUS College.