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Understanding China’s Latest Move Against Hong Kong
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Understanding China’s Latest Move Against Hong Kong

The CCP is using the threat of a foreign bogeyman to encroach on residents' freedoms.

Not even the coronavirus pandemic could convince the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to set aside its territorial ambitions. As the virus spread around the globe earlier this year, the CCP continued to assert its sovereignty over much of the East and South China seas, harassing Japanese ships and sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat. There are growing indications in recent days that renewed border clashes between China and India, a longstanding issue between the two countries, are serious. President Trump took to Twitter earlier today to say the U.S. is willing to “mediate or arbitrate their now raging border dispute”—an offer the countries will surely spurn. And then there is Hong Kong—a unique, semi-autonomous metropolitan area that has been part of China since the British handover in 1997.  

Earlier this month, the Chinese government announced that a new national security law for Hong Kong would be introduced at the Third Session of the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC), a body that rubber stamps the CCP’s agenda. The government didn’t release a draft copy of the legislation, so it isn’t clear what is exactly in it. But BBC News and other sources report that the law is intended to give Beijing sweeping powers in the name of combating secession, subversion, terrorism, and foreign interference in Hong Kong. 

Pro-democracy activists see it  as a move by the CCP to further undermine Hong Kong’s historical autonomy. And the fate of Hong Kong has become part of the war of words between Beijing and Washington. On Tuesday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, warned that the Trump administration should stand aside or face unspecified consequences. “The U.S. has no right to wantonly comment or interfere,” Zhao said. “If the U.S. is bent on harming China’s interests, China will have to take all necessary measures to fight back.”

Zhao is one of China’s so-called “Wolf Warriors,” an aggressive breed of diplomat dedicated to defending the CCP. He has been particularly outspoken during the coronavirus pandemic, making outlandish allegations, such as that the U.S. military may have first brought COVID-19 to Wuhan. But his warning to the U.S. is straight from the CCP’s playbook. The party seeks to blame “external” influences for the political crisis in Hong Kong, even though it is almost entirely an internal affair. Hong Kongers have long resisted the CCP’s encroachments on their freedom, rallying against a similar anti-sedition law in 2003. That same underlying dynamic is in play here, despite the CCP’s attempt to deflect blame. 

The Trump administration clearly isn’t going to refrain from commenting, as demanded by Zhao. In fact, the State Department reported to Congress earlier today that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from the rest of China. 

That is a significant declaration. To understand why, some background is in order.

“One country, two systems.”

The relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China is often described as “one country, two systems,” meaning that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has sovereignty over the region, but its inhabitants have been allowed to operate according to their own distinctive traditions and customs. This basic configuration was established under the Sino-British Joint Declaration. As part of that agreement, which was signed in Beijing on December 19, 1984, Hong Kong became a “Special Administrative Region” (SAR) as soon as the British transferred control over to the Chinese government in 1997. As envisioned in the 1984 treaty, Hong Kong was to remain an economic and cultural enclave even after the CCP began to exercise its sovereignty. 

Although the Hong Kong SAR was placed “directly under the authority of the” Chinese government (PRC), it was also promised a “high degree of autonomy”—a phrase that is key to the ongoing political dispute and the State Department’s new report to Congress.

The phrase “one country, two systems” doesn’t appear in the text of the 1984 agreement, but the concept grew out of the “high degree of autonomy” granted to Hong Kong. The “social and economic system in Hong Kong” was to “remain unchanged” after China resumed the “exercise of sovereignty,” according to the joint declaration. The city’s inhabitants were to have their “[r]ights and freedoms, private property, ownership of enterprises, legitimate rights of inheritance and foreign investment” all “protected by law.” And the Hong Kong SAR, run by “local inhabitants,” was “vested with executive, legislative and independent judicial power including that of final adjudication.”

The 1984 accord left most of the details concerning the day-to-day structure and operations of the Hong Kong SAR open-ended. One area was carved out as an exception, “foreign and defense affairs,” which were placed under the purview of the PRC. In 1990, the National People’s Congress (NPC) formally adopted the “Basic Law,” a lengthy document setting forth the terms under which Hong Kong would be governed. The “Basic Law” is supposed to enshrine the concept of “one country, two systems”—a principle the CCP has not rhetorically abandoned, even if today it really desires just one system.  

Mass protests were organized in June 2019 in opposition to proposed new extradition law.

Many of Hong Kong’s inhabitants are concerned that the CCP and the SAR are undermining the city’s “high degree of autonomy.” In April 2019, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor (“Carrie Lam”) submitted new legislation to the city’s Legislative Council (Legco) that would have permitted extraditions to the mainland. Such extraditions were not previously legal. The move raised the possibility that the CCP could use the new law for political retribution. 

Hong Kong’s Legco was set to consider the legislation in mid-June 2019 when mass protests were held over several days. Protest organizers claim that 1 million people attended the initial peaceful demonstration, which began on June 9, with the crowd growing to an estimated 2 million people over the next week. (Hong Kong’s police force claims the number was much lower, ranging from 250,000 to 350,000 people.) The initial protests were the first in a wave that has rocked Hong Kong and unsettled the CCP ever since. 

Even though Lam backed down from the proposed legislation, the protesters sensed that something nefarious was afoot. They issued a list of five demands: the legislation be revoked, all charges against the protesters be dropped, officials retract their claim that the protests were “riots” (an incendiary way of framing the largely peaceful affair), an independent body investigate claims of police brutality, and universal suffrage be granted to Hong Kongers so they can elect the chief executive and other members of the Legco. Lam acquiesced only to the first of the five demands.

Although the extradition law was the immediate cause of the protests, Hong Kong’s residents have been worried about the CCP’s machinations for the past two decades. 

According to an analysis by the Congressional Research Service, many Hong Kongers think that the CCP and the SAR have worked to undermine the city’s “high degree of autonomy” since the late 1990s, exerting influence over the Legco and interfering with its judicial autonomy. “Even before the [SAR] was formed,” the CRS writes, “China’s central government created a ‘provisional Legislative Council’ to replace the last Legco elected during British rule, claiming that changes made by the British in the 1996 Legco election procedures violated the provisions of the Joint Declaration.” 

That is, the CCP sought to control the Legco from the outset. 

Other moves followed. In 1999, for instance, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) overturned a decision by Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal that would have granted residency to mainland children born to parents who were already permanent residents of Hong Kong. In 2014, according to the CRS analysis, the NPCSC decreed that universal suffrage would be granted in Legco elections, but only if a “nominating committee” picked the candidates who could run, thereby giving Beijing control over the body. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets, shutting down major commercial roads and forcing then-Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to scuttle the measure. But that didn’t end the NPCSC’s machinations. In 2016, the NPCSC ruled that Legco members could be disqualified if they were not “sincere and solemn”—a move that paved the way for Leung to “have six pro-democracy Legco members” ousted. 

Many Hong Kongers are also concerned about “Mainlandization”—a CCP initiative to transform the city’s culture, thereby eroding the citizens’ autonomy. According to the CRS write-up, this includes CCP efforts to reform Hong Kong’s educational system and indoctrinate young students, implant up to 150 “Mainlanders” within the city each day, and further integrate Hong Kong’s economy into the country’s CCP-dominated system. 

Against this backdrop, it is easy to see why Hong Kong’s protesters see the proposed new security law as just the latest impingement on their autonomy. 

The CCP tries to pin blame on “external forces.”

Xi Jinping and the CCP knew that the proposed security law would be controversial, to say the least. So, the CCP’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomats quickly got to work—claiming that the law is necessary to defend against nefarious foreign influence in Hong Kong. The CCP has blamed the U.S. and U.K. for the protest movement from the beginning, a charge that isn’t backed up by the evidence. As explained above, Hong Kongers have their own legitimate concerns about the CCP’s intentions and actions. But Xi’s loyalists seek to deflect attention from these concerns, highlighting the alleged role played by outsiders in spawning the protests. 

On May 21, China’s embassies disseminated a message written by the foreign ministry titled, “Upholding national security is the precondition and guarantee for the prosperity and development of Hong Kong.” The central claim in the statement is this: “The opposition in Hong Kong have long colluded with external forces to carry out acts of secession, subversion, infiltration and destruction against the Chinese mainland.” 

Ominously, China’s foreign ministry claims that the protesters’ “activities have posed a grave threat to China’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity” and it is they who have generated “a serious challenge to the principle of ‘one country, two systems,’ and presented a real threat to China’s national security.” Hong Kong “has become a notable source of risk to China’s national security,” the foreign ministry claims, and “[u]pholding national security is a core requirement” to maintain the principle “one country, two systems.”

Although many of the protesters see the SAR as a tool of Beijing, the foreign ministry blames the authority for failing to keep matters in check. Since “the return of Hong Kong 23 years ago, the SAR has not acted out its constitutional duty for national security in line with China’s Constitution and the Basic Law,” the foreign ministry writes. “There is a clear loophole in Hong Kong’s legal system and an absence of a mechanism of enforcement.”

China’s foreign ministry is right that there is a “loophole” in Hong Kong’s political system, but the CCP is trying to exploit it by blaming foreign powers for the protests. As noted above, the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration envisioned an enclave that enjoyed economic and cultural autonomy, but deferred to Beijing on foreign affairs and defense issues—that is, national security. And the CCP claims that the SAR failed to enact appropriate security legislation under the “Basic Law,” meaning Beijing now needs to step in. The CCP justifies that move, in large part, by blaming foreign actors for the rolling crisis. In other words, the party seeks to control Hong Kong’s internal affairs, thereby ending its “high degree of autonomy,” by pointing to the threat of a foreign bogeyman—that’s the national security “loophole.”

State Department finds Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from mainland China. 

Under the Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, the State Department is required to certify to Congress whether or not the region remains “sufficiently autonomous” from the rest of China. That is intended to ensure that Hong Kong receives preferential treatment on a range of economic and political matters, so long as the CCP hasn’t brought its “high degree of autonomy” to an end. 

In a major announcement earlier today, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reported to Congress that he can “no longer” certify that Hong Kong is “autonomous from China, given facts on the ground.” 

“While the United States once hoped that free and prosperous Hong Kong would provide a model for authoritarian China, it is now clear that China is modelling Hong Kong after itself,” Pompeo said in a statement. 

It remains to be seen what this means for American policy. But we can be certain of one thing: China’s “Wolf Warriors” will howl in reply. 

Photograph by Tang Yan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

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Thomas Joscelyn

Thomas Joscelyn is a Dispatch contributor.