Hong Kong is now just under halfway through the 50-year period designated for the operation of “One Country, Two Systems.” But the past fortnight’s unprecedented series of hammer blows to liberty suggests that the end will come much sooner.

That these potentially lethal blows come at a time when Hong Kong and the rest of the world is fighting a pandemic and a dire economic recession, demonstrates the terrifying determination of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to place political control over all other considerations.

File photo: Benjamin Yuen/United Social Press.

Some people believe that Beijing has chosen this time to do its worst in Hong Kong in the hope that because everyone is so preoccupied with the coronavirus crisis, the rest of the world will not have the energy to respond.

I am dubious about this because, lamentably, there is an even worse explanation. It is that the CCP is largely indifferent to international opinion but so incensed over the failure to get Hong Kong under control that it is determined to act decisively, even at a time of extreme crisis, because asserting control is considered to be far more important than the prospect of collateral damage.

Just going over this dizzying pace of recent events and putting them together causes incredulity even to a hardened cynic.

It started with Beijing’s point man in Hong Kong, Luo Huining, issuing a blunt warning about the need to introduce a national security law fulfilling the requirements of Article 23 of the Basic Law. He was completely unfazed by the level of alarm and resistance that this would cause.

Luo Huining. Photo: Apple Daily.

Then there was an escalating series of statements asserting the power of the central government’s Liaison Office and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office to not only make declarations on local affairs but also to ensure that “the relevant authority is properly exercised.”

This assertion of the right to control Hong Kong’s internal affairs is clearly in defiance of the Basic Law which lays out that this is the responsibility of the HKSAR government. This power grab was so audacious that the waxworks who have been stripped of their authority could not even get their statements of support for Beijing’s move right. They had to make three contradictory attempts to explain why all previous assurances of non-intervention were now incorrect.

But it did not stop there as there was then a mass round-up of Hong Kong’s veteran democracy camp leaders, alongside others who have been prominent in organising mass peaceful protests. The pretext for these arrests was so weak that even the government struggled with a justification before falling back on a general statement about no one being above the law.

That would have been quite bad enough had Beijing not then intervened to congratulate the police for the arrests and declaring those arrested to be guilty well before their cases came anywhere near a court of law.

This kind of thing regularly happens on the mainland where the rule of law is a sham, so it is quite possible that the concept of the presumption of innocence is quite unknown to the hard men in Beijing. But then again, even if they were aware of how things work in a system with an independent judiciary, they are determined to make it work in another way.

Could there be more? Yes, there could and it came in an even more breath-taking attempt by Beijing to reach right into the heart of LegCo and pluck out Dennis Kwok, the legal representative in the chamber who has been chairing the much-stalled House Committee.

Where else would you find disagreements over the rules of procedure leading to a threat of criminal action against those at the heart of the dispute? This is both bizarre and deeply worrying as the only comparison I can find is the way that the Nazis hauled off members of Germany’s legislature before emptying it entirely of opposition voices.

Dennis Kwok. File photo: Civic Party.

The sheer nastiness of the ruling elite is something to behold. They want to put even the most moderate of opponents in jail, alongside health workers, teachers and journalists – in other words, anyone who dares not to toe the party line.

What lies behind this determination to quash dissent is a level of paranoia that only makes sense if the world is viewed through the prism of the truly paranoid. Beijing and the local Quislings really believe that there is a dark and concerted international plot aimed at undermining China.

Because their followers only act under instructions from the centre and are proficient in little else other than obedience, they find it impossible to believe that millions of Hongkongers are prepared to go out on the streets in the cause of democracy and do so without being manipulated by these dark hands.

They are incredulous that a movement led by no one they have heard of can sustain the protests, effortlessly raise funds and imaginatively come up with ways of making the protests even more impactful.

Photo: Studio Incendo.

Seen through this warped prism the only possible explanation for this is that the black hands of people like Martin Lee and Jimmy Lai are pulling the strings. And, because they have utter contempt for Hongkongers, the paranoid also believe that these democracy leaders cannot possibly be acting on their own. Therefore, a malign foreign power must be standing behind them.

This paranoid view of Hong Kong explains why this deluge of action has descended from the North. Laws must be passed to prevent subversion, opponents must be purged and jailed and when it is increasingly evident that the Quislings who run the government are hopelessly incompetent, their controllers have decided they have no alternative but to step in and sort things out themselves.

Unlike some people who regularly declare “One Country, Two Systems” has died a horrible death, I am reluctant to conclude that the corpse is about to topple into the grave. But such morbid optimism is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain.

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Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist, writer and broadcaster and runs companies in the food sector. He was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent. Vines is the author of several books, including: Hong Kong: China’s New Colony, The Years of Living Dangerously - Asia from Crisis to the New Millennium and Market Panic and most recently, Food Gurus. He hosts a weekly television current affairs programme: The Pulse. Vines’ latest book, Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and the world’s largest dictatorship, will be published in 2021 by Hurst Publishers, London