On the surface, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam appears to have had a few pretty good months: Her government has managed to contain the coronavirus outbreak, during which street protests have mostly disappeared.
Yet her bosses in Beijing don’t appear convinced that will help their allies during Legislative Council elections set for September. A spate of arrests and stern official edicts over the past few weeks amount to an offensive that looks designed to ensure China gets its way no matter what happens at the ballot box.
Over the weekend, Hong Kong police arrested more than a dozen prominent pro-democracy figures in the former British colony, including a current lawmaker, former politicians and a media tycoon whose outlets are sympathetic to protesters who paralyzed the city for much of the last year. That came after Beijing agencies that oversee the city blasted the opposition for filibustering in the parliament, known as LegCo.
“The authorities would like to prepare Hong Kong people for the possibility that the LegCo majority falls into the hands of the pro-democracy camp,” said Joseph Cheng, a veteran democracy activist and retired political science professor. “The preservation of the regime is of paramount importance all of the time — and the authorities are willing to pay the price, in terms of conflict, damage to the stability of Hong Kong, its international image, its progress.”
On Tuesday, Lam blasted the opposition’s “malicious filibustering” and suggested that the city’s recent stimulus relief package wouldn’t have been possible if the pro-democracy forces had a majority in the Legislative Council — and that Hong Kongers and businesses alike would suffer.
“Imagine if the Legislative Council is led by those who voted against the HK$130 billion in funding? What would Hong Kong become?” Lam asked in a regular news conference ahead of a meeting of the city’s Executive Council. “How can the suffering of companies and the people be alleviated?”
The harder-line approach comes just as Hong Kong appears to be ready to open up again after months of social-distancing restrictions kept people indoors: The city reported no new cases Monday for the first time since March 5. It risks spawning another summer of discontent, with protesters expected to mark several anniversaries from June up until the LegCo election.
On Monday, Fitch Ratings downgraded Hong Kong as an issuer of long-term, foreign currency debt in part because the city’s “deep-rooted socio-political cleavages remain unresolved,” despite the virus dampening protests.
“This injects lingering uncertainty into the business environment, and entrenches the risk of renewed bouts of public discontent, which could further tarnish international perceptions of the territory’s governance, institutions, and political stability,” Fitch said.
A majority for the pro-democracy camp in the lawmaking body would be unprecedented: The high-water mark came in 2004, when it won 42 percent of seats. But the sometimes-violent protests last year, in which demonstrators called for meaningful elections, propelled the pro-democracy camp to win about 85 percent of seats in a vote for local district councils in November.
President Xi Jinping’s response to that result was the appointment of two hard-liners to oversee Hong Kong. In January, Luo Huining, a cadre known for executing Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, was made head of China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, while in February Xi appointed Xia Baolong, who oversaw a crackdown on Christian churches several years ago when he was the Communist Party chief of China’s Zhejiang province, as director of the overarching Hong Kong & Macau Affairs Office.
In recent weeks, Beijing’s agencies overseeing the city have accused the opposition politicians of potentially violating their oaths with delay tactics — a potential precursor to disqualification. They also reiterated their support for national security legislation that has ignited previous rounds of protest in the city.
Lam and other pro-establishment politicians in Hong Kong have criticized the filibustering and have supported the right of the Liaison Office chief to comment on gridlock at the city’s legislature. As Hong Kong successfully contained the virus, Lam’s popularity rating has rebounded from record lows and “significantly increased” in a poll conducted in late March and early April, which did not attribute the increase to any particular policy.
“The central government has constitutional responsibility for the governance of Hong Kong, and of course has the right to express its views on the performance of the Legislative Council,” said Zhi Zhenfeng, a law professor at the state-run China Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. He added, though, that “policy tweaks are possible” and the recent statements do no constitute any sort of new policy direction.
However, the Hong Kong government’s defense of the two central government agencies to comment on Hong Kong politics has set off alarm bells, particularly since Article 22 of the city’s mini-constitution bars any Beijing-controlled entity from interfering in the former colony.
The Hong Kong Bar Association pointed out Monday that the city’s government was contradicting previous statements on the role of Beijing’s agencies in Hong Kong, and that the “current uncertainty contributes to undermining confidence” in both governments’ commitment to the “one country, two systems” principle. In its statement, Fitch Ratings said the central government is “taking a more vocal role in Hong Kong affairs than at any time since the 1997 handover.”
Danger of extremism
For both China and Hong Kong, the economic stakes are high. The U.S. has increased scrutiny of the city’s autonomy from the mainland, which is essential to maintaining special trading privileges that help underpin the economy.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration roundly condemned China’s latest arrests, which included 81-year-old Martin Lee, a former lawmaker nicknamed the “Father of Democracy” since he was a founder of the city’s flagship opposition Democratic Party. China rejected the international criticism on Monday, calling it “gross interference in Hong Kong’s internal affairs.”
China’s assertive tone — and the arrests of many moderate, older opposition figures — could alienate the city’s more radical protesters and encourage them to renew violent attacks in the city, said opposition lawmaker Fernando Cheung. This may allow authorities in Beijing to then justify canceling the election or ramming through controversial national security legislation known as Article 23, he said.
“Democrats don’t want to see extremism grow,” Cheung said. “We want to keep peace and prosperity, but by way of the government’s handling of this — and more so the Communists handling of the situation — there’s a danger that extremism will grow.”
Summer is coming
This idea was echoed in a blog post over the weekend by Jerome Cohen, a renowned American scholar of Chinese law and a professor at New York University, who wrote the arrests could be a “trap” that could justify “repressive” national security measures or lead to a cancellation of the upcoming election.
Hong Kong officials repeatedly warned of the risk of terrorism last year, and those fears have continued to grow. The city’s police chief on Monday received an improvised explosive device at his office on Monday although no one was injured, the South China Morning Post reported, citing multiple unidentified insiders.
Either way, analysts are expecting political turmoil to return to the streets once the pandemic fears subside.
“They’re trying to use a tough political line ahead of summer, which is the traditional peak of social movements in Hong Kong,” said Ivan Choy, a senior lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “They want to use this time to try and threaten these people from coming out, to make people think that if they come out again there will be legal consequences. This is their thinking. Whether this happens is another issue. Protesters could be provoked.”