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A Mark of Beijing’s Tightening Grip on Hong Kong
By Richard McGregor

To appreciate how dramatically China’s new national security law for Hong Kong will change politics in the territory, it’s not necessary to heed the views of its foreign critics. It is better to watch and listen to Beijing and its supporters.


The law will outlaw separatist activity, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. It will also allow a new Beijing-run office to be established in the territory to gather intelligence and handle offenses against national security. Anyone who thinks that the law will have a benign impact on Hong Kong has not been paying attention either to what its supporters say it will do or to the larger currents of politics in China that precede it.


The defenders of the law note that Hong Kong has been required since the 1997 handover to enact provisions on national security. On top of that, they say, Hong Kong’s robust legal system and independent courts will ensure that it is administered fairly.


The first is true, but it is a mark of the fundamental distrust of Hong Kong citizens in the Chinese Communist Party that the territory has resisted the enactment of such laws from the handover onward. The mass protests in Hong Kong in recent years underline how that trust has gotten worse, not better. Who could blame Hong Kong people for being suspicious? In 2015, the Chinese authorities kidnapped a number of Hong Kong booksellers and detained them on flimsy charges in China. Two years later, Beijing flouted Hong Kong’s autonomy by kidnapping Xiao Jianhua, a Chinese-Canadian financier, at the Four Seasons Hotel and spiriting him to the mainland.


The second defense — resting on the Hong Kong legal system — might also have been true, were it not for Beijing’s determination either to circumvent it, or, should that option be closed, to manipulate it.


Beijing has also made clear that Chinese law will take precedence if there is any conflict with Hong Kong’s own laws. According to a Xinhua summary of the bill in June, “where the local laws of [Hong Kong] are inconsistent with this law, this law applies.” Equally, Beijing says it maintains the right to interpret the laws as well.


Even worse, pro-Beijing figures in Hong Kong have made it clear that Beijing could decide to extradite anyone charged with subversion-related offenses to be tried in the mainland itself. “If the central government thinks it is necessary, that is an option,” said Tam Yiu-chung, a Hong Kong member of Beijing’s political consultative bodies. This was a remarkable statement, given that the Hong Kong government has already dropped a proposed extradition law in the face of mass protests.


The offenses listed in the security law are all serious crimes in China that the local courts have little discretion to handle, other than to follow political instructions.


Before the security law was approved in late May by the National People’s Congress (by a vote of 2,878 to 1!), Beijing had already sent an unmistakable signal that it would be taking a harder line. In February, Beijing appointed Xia Baolong, a long-time ally of Chinese President Xi Jinping, as the new head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, the mainland agency with prime oversight of the territory. Xia had stepped back from executive duties as a communist party official and, at the age of 67, had been kicked upstairs to be vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee. The fact that Xi pulled a hardliner such as Xia, best known outside of China for his crackdown on Christian churches in Zhejiang, out of effective retirement was a signal the leadership wanted a tougher line.


Earlier, in November 2019, a meeting of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party had marked a similar hardening of tone, saying that “one country” should take precedence over “two systems,” along with greater stress on law enforcement and patriotic education. The security law, then, was simply one of a series of carefully calculated steps by a central government that has lost patience with the Hong Kong protest movement and what it regards as its virulent, anti-mainland thrust.


The political system in Hong Kong is already rigged in favor of Beijing. In the Legislative Council — the territory’s lawmaking body — the number of directly elected seats is limited. The pan-Democrats dominate these seats. But there are nearly as many constituencies voted on by business and professional groups, which naturally lean toward Beijing and thus cancel out the directly elected ones, leaving the democrats in a permanent minority. As a result of this artfully engineered bias, as Antony Dapiran notes in his book, City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong, “Hong Kongers elect the opposition; they do not elect the government.”


But that, along with choosing the territory’s chief executive, is not enough for Beijing.


Washington Post, the number of locals applying for the police certificates needed to emigrate rose by nearly 80 percent to almost 21,000 in the latter half of 2019 from a year earlier. Once the security law is passed, expect that number to rise even further.


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    Defenders of the law note that Hong Kong has long been required to enact national security provisions and say the territory’s independent legal system will ensure the law is administered fairly. This misses the people’s distrust of the Chinese Communist Party and the ways that Beijing has already flouted Hong Kong’s autonomy.
    Published: June 2020 (Vol.15 No.2)
    About the author

    Richard McGregor is a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.

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