Crossing the Red Line: Behind China’s Hong Kong takeover

Beijing has unleashed a stampede of actions to bring Hong Kong into political lock step with the Chinese Communist Party
Last Updated : 28 June 2021, 03:15 IST

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Hong Kong’s march toward an authoritarian future began with a single phrase in a dry policy paper. Beijing, the document declared, would wield “comprehensive jurisdiction” over the territory.

The paper, published in June 2014, signaled Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s determination to tame political defiance in the former British colony, which had kept its own laws and freedoms. But the words were dismissed by many as intimidating swagger that the city’s robust legal system and democratic opposition could face down.

Hong Kong now knows Xi’s ambitions with a stunned clarity. The paper marked the opening of a contest for control in the city, culminating in the sweeping national security law that few saw coming.

Since that law took force one year ago, Beijing has unleashed a stampede of actions to bring Hong Kong into political lock step with the Chinese Communist Party: arresting activists, seizing assets, firing government workers, detaining newspaper editors and rewriting school curricula.

While the clampdown seemed to arrive with startling speed, it was the culmination of yearslong efforts in Beijing. Interviews with insiders and advisers, as well as speeches, policy papers and state-funded studies, reveal Chinese officials’ growing alarm over protests in Hong Kong; their impatience with wavering among the city’s pro-Beijing ruling elite; and their growing conviction that Hong Kong had become a haven for Western-backed subversion.

In the years following the white paper’s release, Beijing laid the groundwork for a security counteroffensive. Officials attacked the assumption that Hong Kong’s autonomy was set in stone under the framework negotiated with Britain near the end of colonial rule. They pushed back against demands for democratic rights, while influential advisers audaciously proposed that Beijing could impose a security law if Hong Kong legislators failed to act.

There were clues to indicate that positions in Beijing were hardening. It was only the final push, in the months before the security law came down, that was muffled in near-total secrecy.

Those signals, often conveyed with the Communist Party’s usual calculated opacity, failed to cut through the political tumult in Hong Kong. The city’s opposition had envisioned grinding, shifting political battles against Chinese government encroachment over decades, not a lightning war. Given the risk of a global backlash, and the territory’s vital financial role, many assumed that Xi would move cautiously. Even Beijing’s closest loyalists in Hong Kong underestimated how far he was ultimately willing to go.

China’s offensive has dramatically accelerated its absorption of Hong Kong, portending deeper changes that could end the city’s status as Asia’s cosmopolitan capital.

“The whole process developed or evolved gradually, until a couple years ago, then it sped up very quickly,” said Lau Siu-kai, a Hong Kong scholar who advises Beijing on policy. “The problem is that the national security law came about very suddenly and many people were caught by surprise, including the so called pro-Beijing people in Hong Kong.”

A Firewall Vanishes

Xi came to power in 2012 amid expectations in Hong Kong that he might be a pragmatic overseer, content to rely on the politicians and tycoons who had long served as Beijing’s surrogates.

His father had been a liberalizing leader in neighboring Guangdong province, and Xi at first cultivated a relatively mild image. He told Leung Chun-ying, then Hong Kong’s top official, that China’s approach to the territory “will not change.”

But as he settled into power, Xi revealed an iron-fisted ideological agenda. In mainland China, he stifled dissent and denounced ideas like judicial independence and civil society — values that to many defined Hong Kong.

The 2014 policy paper signaled Xi’s rejection of the idea that laws and treaties insulated Hong Kong from Chinese state power. Many in Hong Kong had long worried that the city’s autonomy was brittle, but previous Chinese leaders had preferred to exercise influence indirectly and covertly.

The paper’s new phrase, “comprehensive jurisdiction,” suggested that Beijing no longer saw a legal “firewall” encasing Hong Kong, said Michael C. Davis, a former professor of law at the University of Hong Kong and author of “Making Hong Kong China.”

While the term ignited protest by lawyers in Hong Kong, many considered it an intimidating political statement without legal foundation, one that would goad the opposition rather than deter it.

“This avowed posture of ‘crushing a crab to death with a boulder’ is a foolish move,” Chan Kin-man, an academic at the forefront of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy campaign, said at the time. “It will only prompt an even bigger social reaction.”

Beijing soon made clear that it was serious about setting new rules for Hong Kong.

Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, had raised the possibility of fulfilling China’s repeatedly delayed promise to let the public directly elect the chief executive, Hong Kong’s top official. In August 2014, the Chinese government revealed a narrow proposal to allow a direct vote starting in 2017, but only from among a handful of candidates approved by Beijing.

Tens of thousands of people responded by occupying major streets for 2 1/2 months. Chinese leaders began to worry that Hong Kong had become an ideological abscess that would need lancing.

Chinese media and pro-Beijing politicians began calling the protests a “color revolution,” the party’s term for Western-sponsored insurrection. Chinese officials intensified calls for the territory to pass security legislation, a commitment demanded by the Basic Law, Beijing’s framework of rules that give Hong Kong its special status.

The government began dismissing as a relic the joint declaration with Britain that laid out conditions for Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997. A Chinese diplomat in London said the declaration was “now void,” according to a British lawmaker.

But Xi was not yet ready to make dramatic incursions into Hong Kong. His policy shifted between warnings and reassuring economic gestures, lulling some into thinking that the party’s political bite would not match its rhetorical bark.

Xi’s hold over China’s own security apparatus was incomplete. Beijing also wanted to keep tensions with the United States in check and give Hong Kong time to repair its economy after the demonstrations, said Tian Feilong, an associate professor of law at Beihang University in Beijing who became a supporter of a tougher approach to protesters.

Given those considerations, he said, Chinese leaders “didn’t immediately set to work on solving the national security issue.”

‘Grab this hot potato’

Curtailing opposition in Hong Kong was more complicated than in other tense areas on China’s periphery, like Tibet and Xinjiang.

Hong Kong had its own British-derived legal system, a popular and well-organized democratic opposition and far greater global economic exposure. Bringing out Chinese troops to quell protests could spook financial markets.

Pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong were reluctant to push for national security legislation. A previous attempt had failed in 2003 after a massive protest.

“Nobody was willing to grab this hot potato,” Tian said. “No one, including the Western countries, truly believed that Hong Kong locally had the ability to complete this legislation.”

After 2014, Xi’s calls for resurgent party power emboldened policy advisers to look for new ways to break the impasse over Hong Kong. Hawkish voices began advancing arguments that China could impose a security law on the city by constitutional fiat.

“Some people think that the central government can’t do anything,” Mo Jihong, a law professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a state think tank, said at a 2016 meeting about security legislation for Hong Kong. “The central government has the power to deal with these matters.”

Some Chinese academics published studies arguing that the mainland’s own national security law could be extended to Hong Kong. Others proposed that China pass a law tailor-made for Hong Kong, bypassing political obstacles in the city.

It was widely thought in Hong Kong that Xi would not go that far. When China adopted its own security law in 2015, the top security official in Hong Kong, Lai Tung-kwok, said the responsibility to enact laws in the city against crimes like treason and subversion would be “fulfilled by local legislation.” The administration, he said, “has no plan to enact” such laws. Insiders shook their heads at the idea that Beijing could impose one.

“I had never imagined that you could use this approach,” Tam Yiu-Chung, the sole Hong Kong member of the top committee of China’s legislature, said in a recent interview. “I’d heard about it, but there were so many difficulties with it.”

By July 2017, when Hong Kong’s elite gathered to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the territory’s return to Chinese sovereignty, Xi was ready to raise the stakes.

It was his first visit to Hong Kong as China’s top leader. Hours before tens of thousands kicked off an annual protest for greater democratic rights, Xi inserted a steely warning into his celebratory speech.

Threats to “national sovereignty and security,” or challenges to the central government’s authority in Hong Kong, “would cross a red line and will never be permitted,” Xi said.

In China’s top-down system, Xi’s words galvanized policymakers to look for new ways to defend that “red line.”

One influential adviser, Chen Duanhong, a professor of law at Peking University, submitted several internal reports about Hong Kong to Communist Party headquarters, including one about adopting security legislation. Around that same time, he wrote publicly that in a dire crisis, Chinese leaders could “take all necessary measures” to defend sovereignty, casting aside the fetters of lesser laws.

“The will of the state must constantly respond to its environment of survival,” he wrote, “and then take decisive measures at crucial moments.”

A Missed Warning

For Beijing, the crucial moment appeared to arrive on the night of July 21, 2019. Hundreds of protesters besieged the Central Liaison Office, China’s primary arm in Hong Kong, and splattered black ink on the red-and-gold Chinese national emblem over the entrance.

The demonstrations had begun in June as a largely peaceful outcry against a bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. Within weeks they had become a massive movement, venting years of pent-up discontent over Beijing’s encroachments. Some radical protesters began calling for independence.

For many Hong Kongers, resistance was necessary even if victory was unlikely. “We had thought it would be a slow strangling,” said Jackie Chen, a social worker who supported pro-democracy protests in 2019. “We were thinking about how to slow their strangling, stop it, and then turn for the better.”

To Beijing, the national emblem’s defacement confirmed that the protests had become an assault on its very claim to Hong Kong.

Official media, mute on the protests for weeks, erupted. People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s main paper, said the incident “brazenly challenged the central government’s authority” and “crossed a red line,” echoing Xi’s warning two years earlier.

“Enough is enough,” Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing legislator in Hong Kong, said in a recent interview, recalling the authorities’ reaction to the vandalism.

“And the slogan of Hong Kong independence,” she added. “That’s gone too far.”

The clearest sign of how Beijing would respond came in October 2019. State television showed hundreds of top officials at a closed-door meeting, raising their hands to endorse a move to tighten law and order across China. The plan, published days later, proposed a “legal system and enforcement mechanism for national security” in Hong Kong.

That warning was missed. While many Hong Kongers figured that Beijing would move to end the protests, most thought the steps would be familiar. Some expected fresh pressure on local lawmakers to enact security laws.

At the time, Ip, the lawmaker, doubted that Chief Executive Carrie Lam could make much progress on a security law. “It’s not something that can happen anytime soon,” she said in November 2019.

Notably absent was any talk of security legislation imposed directly by Beijing. The mainland scholars’ proposals had largely faded from view. Top loyalists and government advisers in Hong Kong were not briefed on the option, which might have risked inflaming the protests.

It had “not been discussed in the media,” said Albert Chen, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong who sits on a legal advisory committee to Beijing. “Not even mainland Chinese scholars talked about this possibility at that time.”


But China’s leaders had already reached beyond the offices that usually dealt with Hong Kong — their credibility wounded by the months of protest — and quietly recruited experts to prepare for the security intervention, said two people who were told about the deliberations by participants. Top Communist Party agencies steered the preparations, said both people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the matter.

Xi would formally extend China’s formidable security apparatus to Hong Kong, creating an agency there that answered directly to the party.

Not even the most draconian public proposals for security legislation had envisioned this step.

“Nobody in their wildest imagination would have thought there would be a central agency in Hong Kong,” said Fu Hualing, the dean of the University of Hong Kong law school.

‘Welcoming and Support’

The announcement stunned the city. Before China’s annual legislative meeting, a spokesperson said at a late-night news conference on May 21 that lawmakers would review a plan to impose a national security law on Hong Kong.

The law was quickly passed on June 30, laying out four offenses — separatism, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers — with penalties up to life imprisonment. It demanded oversight of schools and media.

And it created the new Chinese security agency in Hong Kong, virtually immune to legal challenges. It was empowered to investigate cases and bring defendants to trial on the mainland, where party-controlled courts rarely reject prosecutors’ charges.

City officials initially said the security law would be applied with scrupulous precision; instead, it unleashed a rolling campaign that has left few corners of society untouched.

Hong Kong authorities have arrested more than 110 people in national security investigations over the past year, charging 64, including most of the city’s best-known pro-democracy activists.

The Chinese security agency itself has stayed largely out of view. Its most visible footprint has been its temporary headquarters at the 33-story Metropark Hotel Causeway Bay, overlooking Victoria Park, once the site of some of Hong Kong’s biggest protests.

But it has occasionally broken its silence, reminding residents that it looms behind the scenes.

It has pointedly praised the arrests of high-profile figures, including opposition politicians and top editors of Apple Daily, a brash pro-democracy tabloid ensnared by the law and forced to close last week. It has scrutinized museums for potentially subversive artwork, according to a local official. It has extolled the security law as a cure for Hong Kong’s political turbulence.

“I thank the Hong Kong people,” the agency’s chief, Zheng Yanxiong, said in a rare public speech on National Security Education Day, in April.

“They’ve gone through a very natural, reasonable process from unfamiliarity, guessing and wait-and-see about the Hong Kong National Security Law,” he said, “to acceptance, welcoming and support.”

A week later, the Hong Kong government announced that China’s security agency would build a permanent headquarters on the city’s waterfront, occupying a site about the size of two football fields.

Published 28 June 2021, 02:11 IST

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