At last, Beijing officials are speaking candidly about what they want Hong Kong to become and how it should be governed. Their ideas today are light years away from what the majority of Hong Kongers themselves, as well as outside observers, had generally envisaged. The aim is also light years away from what Beijing officials themselves spent decades encouraging everyone to believe. But at least their national integration imperatives are now being acknowledged in more honest terms.              

What officials are saying, in effect, is that they want Hong Kong to become like the former Portuguese colony of Macau: quiet, politically compliant, with pro-establishment officials in charge, a minuscule pro-democracy opposition, and deferential to Beijing in all respects.

Xi Jinping speaking in Macau. File Photo: CCTV screenshot.

No one is saying this in so many words, although paramount leader Xi Jinping himself conveyed such sentiments in his praise for Macau during a visit there last December. But considering the most thoughtful and straightforward explanation to come from any Beijing official since the imminent passage of a national security law for Hong Kong was suddenly announced a month ago–the intentions are clear.

The phrase Zhang Xiaoming has just used to convey the new candour is Hong Kong’s “second return.” He explains how, from Beijing’s perspective, the first return following the end of British colonial rule in 1997, didn’t go so well. At least, it has not turned out to Beijing’s liking and officials now mean to set matters right. This they think they can do with a new national security law tailor-made for Hong Kong. 

The new law

The decision was announced without warning on May 22 and endorsed by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) on May 28. According to Beijing sources, final passage by the NPCSC is imminent. The aim is to complete all drafting and legislative formalities in time for promulgation on July First. The date marks the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule.

No time has been allowed for public consultation or the customary publication of a first draft. The full text will not be available until after the law is promulgated. But according to sporadic press reports, Beijing not only does not trust Hong Kong to pass the law on its own. Beijing also does not trust Hong Kong to enforce the law and will oversee the implementation every step of the way.

The law will criminalize acts of secession, subversion of state power, terrorism, and collusion with foreign or outside forces that seek, to intervene in Hong Kong affairs. How these crimes are to be defined and what punishments they will carry is not yet known. Contrary to initial reports, whether the law is to be retroactive is also not yet known.

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

In terms of enforcement, the draft reportedly states that Hong Kong must establish a National Security Commission that will be responsible for handling national security matters. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, will head the new commission, but it will be supervised by and accountable to the central government.

The draft also stipulates that the central government will set up a National Security Commissioner’s Office here. It will be tasked with monitoring Hong Kong’s security situation, to include intelligence gathering and analysis.

Hong Kong courts will be responsible for enforcing the law, although extradition to the mainland will be mandated for the most serious offences. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive will appoint the judges who will hear the cases tried here.

The central government, through the National People’s Congress and its Standing Committee, will pass the law and direct Hong Kong to implement it. Notwithstanding, Hong Kong’s Legislative Council will still be required to pass a similar law on its own authority. This was the original plan, as stipulated in Article 23 of Hong Kong’s post-1997 Basic Law constitution. Beijing has concluded that, left to themselves, Hong Kong legislators would never be able to pass the kind of security bill Beijing thinks is needed.   

All are mindful of the first attempt that was made long ago, in 2003, but failed when half-a-million people came out to protest against it. Lacking sufficient votes in the legislature, the government had to shelve the Article 23 national security bill and the public’s view of such an undertaking has only gone from bad to worse during the years since. Now Beijing has provided a failsafe back-up plan for as long as the Hong Kong stalemate continues.

Photo: May James.

Last year’s anti-extradition law protest movement convinced Beijing that Hong Kongers were in an insurrectionary mood. But even the local election last November that gave a landslide victory to candidates who endorsed the protest movement–at the height of the disruption– did not give Beijing pause.

Officials might have adapted and adjusted their ways by addressing Hong Kong’s concerns. But they did not. The new security bill is Beijing’s hardline response and the job of explaining it fell to Zhang Xiaoming.

The new candor

Zhang Xiaoming is currently a deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing, within the new streamlined bureaucratic hierarchy introduced early this year. Senior officials close to Xi Jinping are now in charge of the central government’s Hong Kong affairs offices, both here and in Beijing.

Zhang is the official who published an important article last November that was intended to prepare Hong Kongers for what was to come. It might have succeeded except that no one was paying attention. In the article he explained the spirit of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee’s Fourth Plenum. Decisions were formalized at that late October meeting to strengthen centralized intervention from Beijing, as the preferred means of restoring order in Hong Kong after months of political unrest.

But the Plenum came and went with little fanfare and Hong Kong minds were focused elsewhere last November. The anti-extradition law protest movement was culminating in student occupations of two university campuses, with widespread traffic disruptions and much damage to commercial properties. At the same time, candidates were protesting and trying to campaign for the November 24 District Councils election. 

Civil servants counting votes. File photo: HKFP.

Minds now are focused on the looming national security threat and Zhang has a more attentive audience. His comments were delivered on June 8, during what was billed as a “webinar.” The online seminar was part of the delayed celebrations commemorating the 30th anniversary of Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution. It was promulgated in April 1990. Scheduled events were modified for online presentation in deference to the coronavirus health alert. The full text of his speech was printed in the two main Chinese-language Beijing-sponsored newspapers in Hong Kong on June 9.

Most noteworthy, Zhang is the first senior mainland official to acknowledge, finally, that the root cause of Hong Kong’s unrest was political. The usual diagnosis has relied on economic deterministic fundamentals as befits good Marxists. But Zhang said that in his view, Hong Kong’s major problem is not economic or derivatives therefrom — not Hong Kong’s unaffordable housing, or youth employment prospects, or social mobility. The main problem, he said, is political and surrounds the basic question of what kind of place Hong Kong should become.

Photo: CityU.

Zhang’s message was also a rarity in that he placed Hong Kong’s fate squarely within the 50-year time frame due to expire in 2047. The Basic Law’s Article 5, says only that China’s “socialist system and policies shall not be practiced” in Hong Kong and the “previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years.” This inspired the popular “50 years without change” slogan that helped ease Hong Kong across the colonial finish line in 1997.

But that promise has remained curiously unquestioned by everyone and unexplained by Beijing–until now. Zhang is now saying the 50-year promise does have an actual cut-off date after all, and the midway point is fast approaching. 

He phrased a question: how will Hong Kong be able to present itself to the nation in 2047, when the time comes for the National People’s Congress to renew the 1997 mandate for a separate autonomous region?

So, the bargain on offer now is clear: either accept Beijing’s definitions of all its 1997 promises for “one-country, two-systems” with a “high degree of autonomy,” or risk losing whatever remains as well. 

During past periods of controversy, pro-Beijing loyalists liked to warn Hong Kongers they were “playing with fire” and risked “losing their privileges.”  Privileges? What privileges asked pro-democracy partisans. It is our right. The Basic Law says so. Now they know the Basic Law doesn’t mean what they thought it did.

Basic Law. File photo: GovHK.

Zhang’s presentation revolved around four main questions.

(1) Why was “one-country, two-systems” established for Hong Kong in the first place?

(2) Why is the national government now taking the initiative to introduce a national security law for Hong Kong?

(3) Why is Beijing repeatedly insisting that “only a very few people” will be targeted by the new law?

(4) How can this initiative from the central government not be viewed as a turn for the better?

The first question was easy enough to answer. The “one-country, two-systems” formula was adopted in the 1980s, and was about transferring sovereignty, maintaining prosperity, and amicably discussing with Britain how to maintain stability before the 1997 handover. No more prevarications on this point. It was a calculated decision.

The reasons why Beijing has taken the initiative now are self-evident. Internal and external enemy forces have been stirring up trouble for a long time, thereby threatening national security. The troubles took a turn for the worse starting in June last year with the anti-extradition law protests. There was violence, public transport disruptions, train stations were vandalized, the airport was occupied, fires everywhere, a man was set on fire, Molotov cocktails–all the manifestations of incipient terrorism.

Some organizations and individuals were advocating Hong Kong independence, self-determination, and the like, desecrating the national flag and defacing national symbols, attacking the central government’s Hong Kong liaison office and Hong Kong’s Legislative Council building.

Photo: May James.

Foreign and Taiwan forces also joined in, fanning the flames, encouraging the opposition and activists with funds and materiel, with support and protection. The United States passed a Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, directly intruding into China’s legal space and the Hong Kong system. These acts all contradicted the original purpose of “one-country, two-systems.”

Of course, if Hong Kong could have taken care of the problem itself, Beijing would not need to intervene. But even passage of the National Anthem Law has been a struggle for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. So, it would have meant turning heaven and earth upside down for Hong Kong itself to try and pass the necessary national security legislation.

Zhang’s clarity began to elude him when he reached the third question: about why Beijing felt the need to repeat, time and again, that only a “very few” people would be targeted by its new national security legislation.

He didn’t explain who among Hong Kong’s cast of political characters were likely to be targeted as secessionists, subversives, terrorists, or colluders.

Nor did he acknowledge it as a community-wide problem, which would have been easy enough to do in light of the November 24 District Councils election. A record number of voters had turned out and a record number of those voters favored candidates who endorsed, without reservation, the protest movement–despite its revolutionary slogans, valiant fighters, and violent disruptions.

Hong Kong protesters. File photo: Studio Incendo.

Perhaps he felt it was something that could be “understood,” following the logic of the old Chinese saying about targeting one to serve as a lesson to many.

He could only reiterate that all of China’s topmost sources of political authority kept saying the law is concerned only with those committing the four types of crimes. Since the great majority of Hong Kongers had nothing to do with such acts, the law had nothing to do with that great majority. If so many authorities keep saying so, then it must be true.

Zhang’s fourth question was, in effect, how can anyone doubt that this new law will make things better?  He listed all of Beijing’s sorrows for all that had gone wrong since 1997.

If only the clock, could be turned back and Hong Kong could start again. The idea of returning to the motherland needs refreshing. Hong Kong needs a “second return,” suggested Zhang. Beijing’s Hong Kong project needs a second chance with “one-country, two-systems” and “Hong Kong people running Hong Kong” done the right way.

File photo:

He contrasted that ideal with the present sorry state of affairs. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy opposition and its foreign backers are trying to turn Hong Kong into an independent or semi-independent political entity, to become an anti-China anti-communist bridgehead. That’s why Beijing says Hong Kong has become a national security risk, aimed at changing the nature of Communist Party rule in China.

This is wrecking the Hong Kong project, producing too much politics and populism. National security is neglected, and national education resisted. Even examination questions for students are distorted.

This last referred to a recent controversy over the city-wide secondary school graduation assessment examinations. Students were given a kind of trick question designed to test both their knowledge of Japan’s aggression in China before and during World War II, as well as their ability to assess media accounts describing both positive and negative aspects of that period.

Beijing took such exception to the notion that anything positive could be associated with Japan’s pre-1945 role in China, that Hong Kong’s examination authority buckled and discounted the question–after thousands of students had answered it. A case of micro-managing for political correctness in purest form.

HKDSE candidates inside an examination hall. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Hong Kong and the mainland are contrasted in speech and action, continued Zhang. But there is a larger purpose in this anti-China anti-communist messaging. It isn’t just to create chaos in Hong Kong and subvert its political order. The real aim, he reiterated, is to overthrow China’s Communist Party leadership and subvert its political system. People even openly publish articles to this effect.

But beyond such lofty concerns about the fate of China’s communist revolution, at the very least, said Zhang, Hong Kongers should be able to walk the streets freely and travel on public transport and go shopping without fear. Young people should not be brainwashed into breaking the law and everyone should be able to speak their minds in public without being attacked.

In Zhang’s telling, the new national security law is like a kind of magic wand that need only be waved over Hong Kong and all will be well. But the magic he refers to is from the world of contagion. He likens Hong Kong’s disorder to a political virus and sees the new security law as a kind of anti-virus computer software. Once installed, Hong Kong will be able to function more safely and smoothly.

Zhang nevertheless failed to acknowledge one major lapse in Beijing’s logic. How will all of Hong Kong be able to run more safely and smoothly if only a miniscule number of miscreants are targeted? Does he really think that only a tiny number of people are responsible for all that has gone wrong in Hong Kong since 1997? Probably not. If Zhang’s speech is any indication, what Beijing really seems to have in mind is a major old-style rectification campaign aimed at recasting all of Hong Kong in Macau’s image.

Suzanne Pepper

Suzanne Pepper is a Hong Kong-based American writer and Hong Kong resident with a long-standing interest in Chinese politics. In her book, 'Keeping Democracy at Bay: Hong Kong and the Challenge of Chinese Political Reform', Pepper addresses debates surrounding democracy and dictatorship. Her blog following Hong Kong's integration within the Chinese political system dates back to 2009.