Why reassertion of Xi Jinping's authority spells violence in Hong Kong

Sedition legislation would allow Chinese security forces on to streets and may mean end of city’s autonomy

Around this time last year, criticism was mounting in Hong Kong over a proposed bill that would allow people wanted by the Chinese authorities to be sent to the mainland. Demonstrators marched on the city’s legislature and scuffles broke out between pro-democracy and pro-Beijing lawmakers.

Within a few weeks, more than a million people took to the streets, decrying legislation they believed would mark the end of Hong Kong and the freedoms that set it apart from China. A protest movement was born and for months the city was engulfed in violent street battles, in what has been described as Hong Kong’s worst crisis since the 1997 handover of the former British colony to Chinese control.

Now, new legislation is in the works that promises to make that crisis much worse. China’s national legislature is preparing to impose a sweeping anti-sedition law on Hong Kong in an unprecedented legal manoeuvre that would bypass the city’s legislative system, where similar moves were shelved for 17 years because of widespread public opposition. Beijing has said such measures are “absolutely necessary” for stopping the protests and restoring order.

“It is way worse than the extradition bill. It proves that ‘one country, two systems’ has been completely repealed,” said Biyanca Chu, 23, a protester, who was among many shocked by the announcement.

Rights advocates and legal experts say the law, aimed at stopping subversion, separatism, terrorism and “activities of foreign and external forces to interfere in the affairs of Hong Kong” would be used on protesters like Chu, a recent graduate. Over the last year, charges of rioting, illegal assembly, public obstruction among others have failed to dent the demonstrations.

By including foreign interference under national security, the law could also curb international lobbying by pro-democracy activists. China has long blamed countries including the UK and the US as the “black hand” behind the protests

“Usually the penalty will be much heavier when it is national security,” said Ma Ngok, an associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who said in addition to targeting protesters, the law could affect anyone seen as critical of the government.

“International NGOs operating in Hong Kong will not be safe. I don’t know what will happen to the media. This is all part of a major decline of Hong Kong freedom and autonomy,” he said.

Legal experts say the law, details of which would be drafted by the standing committee of China’s National People’s Congress and then directly added to Hong Kong law, is a blatant violation of the autonomy promised under ‘one country, two systems’ and the city’s de-facto constitution, the basic law.

According to a draft document, Beijing would reserve the right to set up national security agencies in Hong Kong to “safeguard national security”. This increases the possibility of Chinese security forces on the streets of Hong Kong.

“It is the beginning of direct rule by Beijing, sidelining the authority of the Hong Kong government and the legislative council as designated by the basic law,” said Prof Ho-Fung Hung, a lecturer in political economy at Johns Hopkins University in the US.

Experts say the aggressive move comes at a time when China is in a stronger position relative to much of the rest of the world struggling to contain the coronavirus pandemic. It is also a way for China to send a message to the US, which is debating whether to continue granting Hong Kong special trade status under the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, passed last year to pressure Beijing into respecting the city’s rights.

Having largely contained the virus, China has begun to restart its economy after months of paralysis, while sending aid and equipment to other countries. According to Prof Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, China has came out of Covid-19 stronger than any other major economy.

“In a situation where the countries that historically would speak up for Hong Kong are on their knees and are dependent on China for PPE, what better timing is there than that?” said Tsang, referring to China’s shipments of personal protective equipment around the world.

Yet the move also comes from a position of vulnerability for the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, who disappeared from public view during the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak in China and has been under scrutiny over what he knew about the virus and when. Some have described the proposed anti-sedition law as a “mark of desperation” after almost a year of not being able to halt the protests.

“Xi Jinping clearly understands that he was weakened by Covid-19, which is more reason why he needs to reassert his authority,” said Tsang. “If he can demonstrate resolve and ability to move in Hong Kong it shows he has not really lost that much control … and therefore [his] enemies within the party better watch out.”

Observers believe the immediate effect of the law is likely to be more unrest. On Friday, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, said her government would fully cooperate with China to enact the legislation while protesters called for demonstrations at the weekend.

“Given that the protests and their intensity have been driven by Beijing’s erosion of promised freedoms, Beijing’s direct imposition of a security law would clearly enflame the population,” said Victoria Tin-bor Hui, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame who has been following the protests.

“We are going to see people going back in the streets in Hong Kong, both big demonstrations and smaller demonstrations – which will be met by police with full force – and violence re-erupting in Hong Kong,” said Tsang. “It’s going to be a very hot summer.”


Lily Kuo

The GuardianTramp

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