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Opinion | Why the Coronavirus is Making China Clamp Down on Hong Kong | Press "Enter" to skip to content

Opinion | Why the Coronavirus is Making China Clamp Down on Hong Kong


The coronavirus epidemic may have momentarily dampened the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, but not the repression. The Chinese authorities in Beijing, after threatening to impose “complete-control governance” (全面管治) over the city in recent years, have in the course of a week taken several major steps toward that goal.

Last Saturday, Hong Kong’s much politicized police arrested 15 prominent pro-democracy politicians. The charge: Organizing and participating in some of the biggest peaceful demonstrations held last year in opposition to Beijing’s increasing interference with Hong Kong’s affairs.

Many younger, more militant protesters have already been put in jail or been arrested and released, with the specter of rearrest and trials hanging over them. The people who were arrested last week are instead veterans of the moderate pro-democracy camp, known as the pan-dems, who have long considered themselves to be the loyal opposition to a local government that has seemed, more and more, to be doing Beijing’s bidding.

The day before, the Central Liaison Office, China’s leading agency in Hong Kong, declared that it had “the authority to represent the central government to exercise oversight, be concerned about and express stern views on important matters involving the relationship between the center and the special administrative region,” among other things. The announcement was no less than a proclamation of Beijing’s intent to put Hong Kong under its direct control.

This is a literal violation of the Basic Law, the mini-constitution that governs Hong Kong’s relation with the mainland authorities and is supposed to guarantee the city, formally a “special administrative region,” a high degree of autonomy until 2047. The document states, in Article 22, that, “No department of the Central People’s Government and no province, autonomous region, or municipality directly under the Central Government may interfere in the affairs which the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region administers on its own in accordance with this Law.”

One immediate fallout of this move by Beijing could be the ouster of Dennis Kwok, a member of the pan-dem Civic Party, from his seat in the legislature, known as LegCo. The Central Liaison Office has bombarded him with insults recently, claiming that his filibustering in the legislature, which the body’s rules allow, amounts to misconduct and violates his oath of office. The pro-government and pro-Beijing camp currently holds 41 of the 70 seats in LegCo, but it seems nervous about being able to maintain that majority past the legislative elections scheduled for this fall — understandably, after the remarkable showing of the pro-democracy camp during district council elections in November.

Also this past week, a major reshuffle was announced of principal officials in the Hong Kong government. Notably, the new head of the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau, which oversees electoral affairs, will be Erick Tsang Kwok-wai, a hard-liner who most recently headed the immigration department, during a period when it barred some journalists from the territory. Joshua Law Chi-kong is leaving as head of the Civil Service Bureau: He is said to have irked Beijing by not taking a tough enough stance on civil servants who supported last year’s protests.

In a way, this week’s onslaught is in keeping with the increasing heavy-handedness in China’s treatment of the city ever since Xi Jinping became the country’s supreme leader in 2012. But the recent developments actually are remarkable. For the first time, the traditional pan-dems are being treated as enemies just like the separatists. And for the first time, Beijing is violating the very letter of the Basic Law, which it itself has promulgated; the Chinese government typically only contorts the law and distorts its spirit.

These fresh precedents suggest that there is a specific and urgent cause to this bout of repression: the Covid-19 pandemic.

The novel coronavirus — which, after originating in China, has gone on to wreak havoc around the planet partly because of Beijing’s failure to promptly share all the information it had about the initial outbreak — is changing the way the world looks at China.

Beijing has been accused of shirking its obligations to the World Health Organization. It hasn’t helped its case lately by pushing internationally what Chinese patriots have applauded online as “wolf warrior diplomacy” (戰狼外交): a campaign of strident propaganda, trying to shift the blame and threatening to restrict exports of critical medical supplies.

Sensing mounting international opprobrium and fearing economic decoupling with major Western powers, the Chinese government appears to believe that it must act, and fast, to once again turn Hong Kong into its window onto the rest of the world. The territory already played something of that role during much of the Cold War, at least until China opened up to the West and mainland cities like Shanghai gained stature as world-class financial and commercial centers.

In the 1950s, a tacit quid pro quo developed between the British colonial government in Hong Kong and the Communists on the mainland: Beijing would let the British make money and not challenge or undermine their sovereignty over the city so long as they kept a lid on any anti-China activities there (including broadcasts by the United States Information Agency). After the British handed over the territory in 1997, the Chinese authorities have had to do by themselves the dirty job of suppressing any political opposition in Hong Kong.

The job has gotten more and more dirty over the years. Especially since, by now, Beijing’s goal doesn’t seem to be maintaining stability in the city so much as subjugating the place.

This week, that ambition has meant axing pan-dem leaders in Hong Kong. They, as mostly old-timers, have little influence over the newer and largely younger more militant pro-independence wing of the city’s pro-democracy movement. Yet people like the barrister Martin Lee, 81, and the media tycoon Jimmy Lai, 71, still command respect among the older generation. And Beijing sees them still as a potential fourth column for Western powers.

Also notable, just days before the arrests, Luo Huining, the head of the Central Liaison Office, called for new security laws to be passed under Article 23 of the Basic Law: Those would sharply curtail political freedoms in Hong Kong and put the city’s citizens firmly under the control of communist China.

The last time the Hong Kong government tried that, in 2003, the effort failed miserably, prompting record street protests and eventually bringing down the chief executive. So if the administration of Carrie Lam hopes to force the issue again this year, perhaps even before the LegCo election in the fall, it needs to stock up on as many formal legal weapons as it can to aim at the political opposition. Hence Beijing’s desire to run roughshod over Article 22 of the Basic Law, which prohibits mainland agencies from interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs.

Its justification for that move was too clever by half: Since the Central Liaison Office already existed in Hong Kong before the Basic Law came into force in 1997 — secretly, as the Xinhua News Agency — it claims that it is exempt from its restrictions today. Beijing manifestly is in a hurry and has no use for logical niceties anymore.

The Chinese government doesn’t even seem to worry that its repressive methods in Hong Kong could diminish the city’s value to it. Perhaps that’s because Beijing managed to placate even the governments that seemed most outraged by the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 — during which the Chinese Communist Party sent in tanks to crush peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators — by giving those governments or their companies a piece of its domestic market or other economic benefits.

That’s just the reason to fear that China might consider at some point exercising hard-core repression in Hong Kong to achieve total control over the city.

In addition to the Tiananmen Square precedent, there is the so-called “February 28 Incident,” a massacre in 1947 Taiwan. Japan, following its defeat in World War II, had recently handed control of Taiwan over to China. But when the Chinese government, then led by the Kuomintang, attempted to exercise its authority over the island, it was thwarted by powerful local politicians and unexpectedly strong pro-Japan sentiment among the Taiwanese.

After a scuffle involving street hawkers illegally selling tobacco resulted in one of them being shot and killed by government agents, mass protests erupted. The Kuomintang government then sent in soldiers from the mainland to restore order, killing some 10,000 people.

As the Hong Kong police’s excesses against pro-democracy protesters multiplied and intensified last year, and as Beijing’s rhetoric became more and more belligerent and the size of its garrisons in the city grew, some worried that China would consider sending in troops to quell the unrest. The idea of a full-blown military crackdown, which struck others as alarmist, far-fetched or misleading then, seems like a more plausible prospect now that the coronavirus pandemic has undermined China’s standing in the world.

Even short of a replay of Tiananmen 1989 or Taiwan 1947, there can be no doubt anymore that Beijing is determined to dismantle what remains of Hong Kong’s freedoms — and, much as it has done with Tibet and Xinjiang, to ensure that Hong Kong is autonomous only in name.

Yi-Zheng Lian, a commentator on Hong Kong and Asian affairs, is a professor of economics at Yamanashi Gakuin University in Japan and a contributing Opinion writer.

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