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China signals plan to take full control of Hong Kong, realigning city’s status

  • Anna Fifield and Shibani Mahtani, The Washington Post, Thursday, May 21, 2020

China’s ruling Communist Party signaled that it is moving swiftly to bring Hong Kong under its full control, with a top official saying Thursday that Beijing plans to alter the system that has allowed the territory to enjoy a level of autonomy for the past 23 years.

After steadily eroding Hong Kong’s political freedoms and independent legal system, the party appears to be preparing to change the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, which sets out rights unavailable in mainland China, such as freedom of assembly and the press.

The new language and approach are the clearest indication that Beijing now views the former British colony as a restive region to be brought to heel after months of anti-government protests last year.

“We will ensure the long-term stability of ‘one country, two systems,'” Wang Yang, head of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, said at the opening of the annual meeting of the country’s top political advisory body. The meeting is the first part of the “Two Sessions,” which will continue Friday with the National People’s Congress, the rubber-stamp parliament.

“We will continue to support the improvement of the implementation of the systems and mechanisms of the constitution and Basic Law,” Wang said in a report to the meeting.

Local media in Hong Kong, including the South China Morning Post, reported Thursday that Beijing will pass a comprehensive national security law in Hong Kong by fiat, bypassing the city’s legislature and chief executive.

The law, which will target subversive activity, appears to be a tailored response to last year’s pro-democracy uprising – which Beijing blamed on secessionist forces and foreign influence. The unrest was sparked by a government proposal to allow extraditions to mainland China, but grew into a broader rebellion calling for full democracy and opposing China’s efforts to chip away at Hong Kong’s firewall with the mainland.

Wang did not elaborate on what “improvement” meant. But he also referred to the Chinese territory of Macao, a gambling hub where open displays of political dissent are rare and where most leaders tow Beijing’s line.

The shift will have far-reaching effects. Under the agreement Britain signed with China before it handed back Hong Kong in 1997, the territory is supposed to enjoy its relative freedoms until at least 2047 under the “one country, two systems” framework. This arrangement helped Hong Kong to flourish as a global financial center even after returning to Beijing’s overall control, and has allowed the United States and other nations to treat the city differently to China.

But under Xi Jinping’s leadership, the Communist Party has encroached on Hong Kong’s autonomy with stunning speed.

“I’m speechless,” said Dennis Kwok, a pro-democracy lawmaker, of the proposed national security legislation. Kwok was singled out for criticism by Beijing and was recently removed from his chairmanship of a key legislative council committee. “This is a complete and total surprise and I think it means the end of one country, two systems.”

Kwok said that the Hong Kong government and Beijing had used the coronavirus pandemic as cover to clamp down on the city.

“When the world is not watching they are killing Hong Kong, killing one country, two systems, and using social distancing rules to keep people from coming out to protest,” he said. “This is the most devastating thing to happen to Hong Kong since the handover.”

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the United States was “closely watching what’s going on” in Hong Kong, adding that pro-democracy lawmakers had been “manhandled” this week “while trying to stop a procedural irregularity by pro-Beijing legislators.”

“Leading Hong Kong activists like Martin Lee and Jimmy Lai were hauled into court,” Pompeo told a news conference in Washington. “Actions like these make it more difficult to assess that Hong Kong remains highly autonomous from mainland China,” he said.

For the United States to treat Hong Kong as a separate entity, mostly for commercial purposes, the State Department must certify that the city retains “a high degree of autonomy” from China. Pompeo said its latest decision on this was still pending.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, through its office of the commissioner to Hong Kong, said Thursday that Pompeo was “blackmailing” the Hong Kong government and accused him of “blatant interference” in China’s internal affairs. It also took aim at Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for placing “unjustifiable pressure on China’s central government.”

“Certain U.S. politicians are repeatedly carping on about [Hong Kong’s] legislative and judiciary branches in a vain attempt to glorify and exculpate the rioters who oppose China and seek to stir up trouble in Hong Kong,” it said. “They just don’t want to see Hong Kong heal its divides and get back on track: their sinister motives are thoroughly exposed, and their ‘black hands’ are bared for all to see.”

In recent months, Beijing has installed a tough new representative in Hong Kong, called for patriotic education to instill more allegiance to China, and promoted a bill that would make it a criminal offense to disrespect China’s national anthem.

Delegates from Hong Kong, including Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, have arrived in Beijing for the Two Sessions.

Wang said that Beijing supported the Hong Kong deputies’ efforts to “avoid violence in Hong Kong and to restore order.”

Citing coronavirus control efforts, Hong Kong authorities have extended prohibitions on public gatherings through June 4, the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and a date that is traditionally marked with a large vigil in Hong Kong.

The Washington Post’s Timothy McLaughlin in Hong Kong contributed to this report

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