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[Analytics] Hong Kong: End of the global city?

A demonstrator spray-paints “Reclaim Hong Kong, Revolution Of Our Time” as thousands of black-clad demonstrators march westward, July 28, 2019. Photo: Nile Bowie. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

On 1 July, Hong Kong made the first arrests under its controversial new National Security Law (NSL). According to a tweet by the Hong Kong police, some 370 people were arrested for protests against the law, and ten persons were actually arrested for breaching the law. Manoj Joshi specially for the ORF.

The police tweeted pictures of paraphernalia calling for an independent Hong Kong, and noted that three females had been arrested for breaching the NSL’s provision against organizing, planning or participating in secessionist activities. In other words, youngsters in Hong Kong who had been used to freedoms of the democratic world must suddenly confront the restrictive measures of a Leninist state.

As per the law, some of those who violate it could be extradited to the mainland and be tried and punished there. One small mercy is that it will not be retroactively applied to protestors and activities before the law came into force. The US and western countries have strongly criticized the move. In a statement on behalf of mainly western and democratic countries, the British Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Julian Braithwaite, told the UN Human Rights Council that the law had “clear implications for the human rights of the people in Hong Kong.” It was violating of the Joint Declaration of 1992, a legally binding treaty registered with the UN, that promised the city “a high degree of autonomy and rights and freedoms.” On the other hand, China crowed that as many as 53 countries had supported the country at the session “triumphing over 27 members that attacked and called for harsh measures against China.”

Given its own obsession with “secession” and “sedition” it was not surprising that India chose to soft-peddle the issue at the meeting and came up with an anodyne statement saying that it had “heard several statements (at the meeting over the Hong Kong developments)” and hoped that “the relevant parties will take into account these views and address them properly.” In China, as in India, concepts like “sedition” and “subversion” are vaguely defined, but can be punished quite severely under the law.

The Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress passed the law on June 30 prohibiting four actions – “secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign or external forces that endanger national security.” The Law was then added to Annex III of Hong Kong’s Basic Law and came into effect later that day. The law has a broad jurisdictional application and can be applies not only to permanent residents and companies in the city, but also to people and activities anywhere that are deemed offences against the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Speaking to the media in Beijing, Zhang Xiaoming, executive director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, insisted that the law would not target the pro-democracy camp but focus on a narrow band of crimes against national security. He rejected suggestions that the law was aimed at disqualifying candidates for the upcoming Legislative Council (Legco) elections in November.

The Chinese authorities in Beijing must be feeling pleased with themselves. Instead of potentially millions taking to the streets, so far they have had to contend with only thousands, and they have been able to contain these protests easily. This must be some relief, given the hostile environment that Beijing has created for itself by simultaneously taking on the US, India, Australia, Canada, and the UK.

So far, besides statements, there has been little reaction to the Chinese move. However, well before the law was actually passed, there was sufficient warning from the US that it China would have to face consequences. First, the special status that Hong Kong enjoys under US law will be affected. This relates to the Hong Kong Policy Act (HKPA) of 1992 that recognized the city’s special status as a separate legal entity from mainland China. This means that the separate treatment of Hong Kong under export controls, customs and extradition are liable to be terminated. Second, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Law of 2019 that amended the HKPA, mandated an annual review to check if Hong Kong had sufficient autonomy to merit the special treatment it was given by the US. Further, it entailed sanctions on any officials deemed responsible for violating the human rights in the city. In May 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reported to the Congress under the amended law that he could no longer certify Hong Kong’s autonomy. President Trump announced that the process of suspending the city’s exemptions would be initiated.

On 29 May, besides a proclamation to block Chinese students involved in the Civil Military Fusion programmes of the PRC, President Trump announced that the US would start to end the preferential treatment for Hong Kong in trade and travel in response to the new security law. He attacked China for smothering Hong Kong’s freedoms and termed the developments as “a tragedy.” He said sanctions would be imposed on Chinese and Hong Kong officials who were believed by Washington to be involved in eroding the territory’s autonomy.

In statements on June 29, Secretary Pompeo and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said that they would begin the process of formally ending Hong Kong’s special status under US laws. Among those affected will be export control regimes. The license exceptions for exports of dual use items to Hong Kong would be suspended; they would now be treated under the same regime that deals with mainland China. Other changes could see higher tariffs for goods of Hong Kong origin being imported to the US, tougher visa requirements, suspension of obligations on extradition and so on.

On Thursday, the US Senate approved the draconian Hong Kong Autonomy Act that had passed the US House of Representatives a day earlier. This targets Chinese officials who implement the National Security Law as well as banks and firms that do business with them. Cumulatively, all these measures could see a quick decline of Hong Kong as a financial pillar of the world and a major entry point for China.

But Beijing seems determined to press on with the belief that nipping the Hong Kong movement in the bud is worth the price it will pay. The main reason was the worry that the Hong Kong protests were morphing into a movement demanding democracy and self-rule, something that could not but have impacted in the mainland. This new security law would have been passed at the March meeting of the NPC, but was postponed due to the Covid-19 outbreak. That Beijing was planning to crack down was evident from two key personnel changes it made in relation to Hong Kong.

In February, Xia Baolong, vice chairman and secretary general of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) was appointed director of the Cabinet-level Hong Kong and Macau (HKMAO) office while his predecessor Zhang Xiaoming was made executive deputy director. Xia is close to Xi Jinping, being a former party secretary of the Zhejiang province. He was deputy chief to Xi for four years in the mid 2000s.

Earlier in January, Luo Huining, former party leader in Shanxi and Qinghai provinces replaced Wang Zhimin as head of the liaison office in Hong Kong. Wang was transferred to the history research unit under the Central Committee.

It was clear with these changes that Beijing was planning to take tough line on Hong Kong for some time now. Now it has emerged that the decision to crack down was taken at the 4th Plenum in October 2019. This information was revealed by China’s Vice Premier Han Zheng to the Hong Kong delegates to the CPCC on 23 May. Beijing believed that the US and Taiwan were fanning the flames in Hong Kong and were trying to change the character of the protests into demands for self-government and even independence. In November, the US passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which authorized the President to impose economic sanctions on the city.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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