Dennis Kwok was with his two children, hiking through the lush jungles of Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak in April, when he realized how far China was willing to go to quell dissent in the former British colony.
Kwok’s phone lit up with texts and calls asking about an alarming and unprecedented statement from China’s top agency overseeing Hong Kong. It said Kwok — an opposition lawmaker who was participating in a filibuster effort in the city’s elected legislature — may have committed misconduct and violated his oath of office, offenses that could cost him his seat.
“It ruined the day with my kids,” Kwok, 42, said. But the London-trained lawyer also realized that “something fundamental had changed” in the months while Hong Kong protesters had withdrawn from the streets to escape the coronavirus.
“The Communist Party pulled back the curtain,” he said.
China on Thursday intervened even more dramatically. President Xi Jinping’s government announced that the National People’s Congress would write sweeping legislation into Hong Kong law to criminalize the harshest criticism of China and the ruling party. Although details remain secret, a similar security bill withdrawn in 2003 carried life sentences and drew massive street protests. All could potentially become law without a local vote.
The move represents the biggest challenge yet to the “one country, two systems” framework set up to guarantee Hong Kong’s liberal institutions and capitalist financial system after its return to Chinese rule in 1997. While the option of handing down such national security legislation has been in the city’s Basic Law since the handover, Xi’s predecessors avoided exercising it due to widespread opposition and concern about damaging the city’s reputation as a legal safe haven.
Now, China has decided to ignore critics such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who indicated Friday that the “disastrous proposal” could lead the U.S. to reconsider the city’s special trade status. The action raises the stakes for another round of violent and destructive street protests ahead of legislative elections in which “pan-democrats” like Kwok were hoping to gain their first majority.
“The Chinese have taken off the gloves in Hong Kong,” said Bonnie Glaser, who directs the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and has advised the U.S. government. “Surrounding the elections in September, there could be massive protests again.”
Hong Kong’s Beijing-appointed leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, attempted to reassure the international community on Friday night that the city would remain a “very free society, where freedom of expression, freedom of protest, freedom of journalism, will stay.” The Hong Kong branch of China’s foreign ministry said the provisions were necessary to ensure social stability and would affect “very few” people.
Hong Kong’s financial markets and independent courts have long provided global companies, entrepreneurs and the Chinese elite with a lucrative refuge from the mainland’s high taxes, capital controls and party-run justice system. Moreover, Beijing gained international prestige by tolerating a raucous democracy under its authority, an arrangement that party leaders hoped would also appeal to self-ruled Taiwan across the South China Sea.
All that began to change when Hong Kong erupted in historic protests last year to block Lam’s attempt to pass legislation that would have allowed the extradition of criminal suspects to the mainland. Demonstrators paralyzed the city for months, shutting down shops and keeping tourists away as they criticized China and demanded free elections to replace Lam.
Protesters chanted “Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of our times!” in largely peaceful marches that drew more than a million people. One band of radicals broke into the Legislative Council on the handover’s anniversary, ransacking the chamber and defacing the city’s emblem.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials including President Donald Trump expressed support for the activists, fanning Beijing’s suspicions of foreign efforts to exploit its domestic weakness. Many pro-establishment figures put the blame on the failure of Hong Kong’s government to reform the city’s colonial-era security laws referring to “Her Majesty” with measures to protect the Chinese state. None of Lam’s predecessors had tried since the 2003 effort failed.
“Beijing has clearly run out of patience with the Hong Kong government’s unsuccessful attempts to end the protest movement by enacting its own draconian security legislation,” said Hugo Brennan, principal Asia analyst for Verisk Maplecroft in London. “The proposed national security law is likely to prove a death knell for the ‘one country, two systems’ model and the facade of Hong Kong autonomy.”
The April 14 statement from the Hong Kong & Macau Affairs Office accusing Kwok of violating his oath and other “sleazy tactics” was just one of a series of steps toward a more interventionist approach by Beijing. The shift was first signaled in an October communique from a Communist Party Central Committee meeting led by Xi, and quickly followed up a legislative official’s pledge to “exercise all powers vested in the central government” over Hong Kong.
Later, as Hong Kong and the rest of the world were focused on a deadly new pneumonia in central China just named Covid-19, Xi put someone in charge with a record of executing controversial policies. On Feb. 13, China named Xia Baolong to head the Hong Kong & Macau Affairs Office atop a newly revamped reporting structure that created a clear chain of command from Hong Kong to Beijing.
The choice of Xia, a former close aide to Xi, set off alarm bells. In 2014 and 2015, he had overseen a crackdown on Christian churches in eastern Zhejiang province, in which crosses were cut from the roofs of houses of worship. Meanwhile, Luo Huining, a cadre known for executing Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, was appointed to head China’s top agency in Hong Kong, the Liaison Office.
It was Xia who briefed Hong Kong representatives Thursday night in Beijing on the plan to pass the new security law before the end of next week.
“They’ve got two guys who are totally not familiar with Hong Kong issues, and who have governed provinces in China in a heavy-handed way and think they can do the same in Hong Kong,” said Kwok, who has a law degree from King’s College, University of London. “They want to use a new strategy of terror, fear, attacks, criticism, direct intervention.”
In April, as Hong Kong’s own coronavirus outbreak began to subside and the city’s old political fights resumed, the two officials turned their attention to the gridlocked Legislative Council. There pro-democracy lawmakers including Kwok had used a quirk in the rules to stop action by the body’s agenda-setting House Committee.
The statement from the Hong Kong & Macau Affairs Office accusing lawmakers of crimes and demanding action was seen by some lawyers as a violation of constitutional provisions banning interference by Chinese agencies. The Liaison Office responded that the restriction didn’t apply because the Basic Law was approved by the National People’s Congress and the parliament had created the agencies to oversee Hong Kong.
It was a sign of things to come. Days later, Hong Kong police arrested 15 high-profile democracy activists including 81-year-old Martin Lee — often called the city’s “Father of Democracy” — on charges related to participating in illegal rallies. Several of those arrested were frequent targets of Chinese state media criticism, even though they were seen as having little role in the more recent “leaderless” protests.
“All these gestures are to show: ‘We’re in control. We’re going to crack down. You guys have to respect the parameters set down by Beijing and that political struggle is futile,’” said Joseph Cheng, a retired political science professor and veteran democracy activist.
Events accelerated in mid-May as pro-establishment lawmakers, aided by security guards, seized control of the House Committee from Kwok and moved to pass legislation criminalizing disrespect for the Chinese national anthem. On May 15, a police watchdog group exonerated the city’s police force from accusations of using excessive force against protesters, despite international criticism.
The moves have left Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp reeling just six months after winning 85 percent of seats in local council elections. Now, many government critics fear the new laws could be used to disqualify candidates for Legislative Council seats or expel winners after the vote — actions the government has taken repeatedly in recent years.
For Kwok, the statements showed he’s a top target. “We need to focus on the September election and tell people, ‘This may be the last election for Hong Kong,’” he said. “People really need to come out to vote.”