Beijing’s imposition of a national security law in Hong Kong is its latest act to hurl the special administrative region towards ‘One Country, One system’—following a long list of meddling in the city’s internal affairs, such as the recent college entrance exam controversy.

Beijing has lost its patience after realising that the soft power approach has ended in a fiasco. In the future, China will take a considerably more aggressive approach towards Hong Kong.  What is in Beijing’s playbook, and how can Hongkongers counter their grand plan? 

Xi Jinping. File photo: i-Cable screenshot.

The “Redline Strategy”

The Beijing and Hong Kong governments are taking up a so-called ‘redline strategy’: any action that violates Beijing’s political redline will be relentlessly quashed, regardless of any existing rules or agreements in place— effectively launching Hong Kong into the era under Chinese administrative control.

The official boundaries are defined by Xi’s ‘Three Red Lines’:

  • Endangering national sovereignty and development interests;
  • Challenging the power of the Central Government and the authority of the Basic Law;
  • Using Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the Mainland.
Photo: GovHK.

There is, however, a double standard on where the red line is drawn. In the broadest sense, these boundaries are mere formalities; however, if they were followed word for word, any Hong Kong citizen could have ‘crossed the line’.

Under this definition, supporting the anti-extradition law protests is a separatist crime, opposing the national security law is challenging Beijing’s authority, and sharing content that contradicts Beijing’s propaganda on the Chinese internet is sabotage against the Mainland. 

Step 1: Revoking the old systems in Hong Kong

The redline in Hong Kong is currently moving towards the narrowest sense of Xi’s “Three red lines”: those who cross the line are cyberbullied, subject to retaliation in the workplace, or arrested for abuses of the law.

These boundaries are set even tighter than in many places in China. Liberal academics in the Mainland proposing social reforms, or artists mocking current politics are not always sanctioned in China! Yet the Hong Kong government recently suspended a popular political satirical TV program.

Lately, the Hong Kong Education Department scrapped a history test question from the college entrance exam, which asked whether Japan had done more good than harm to China before and during WWII, submitting to China’s pressure for its political sensitivity. Conversely, similar subjects are hot topics on Chinese search engine Baidu but seldom face intervention.

Beijing’s tightening grip is aimed at systems rather than individuals. As Mao’s teaching says, “See the essence of things through the phenomenon”. Launching attacks on individuals is to reveal the powerhouse behind.

For example, criticising former chief executive Donald Tsang’s reluctance to implement national security law was not solely targeting him, but the entire civil service bureaucracy. To Beijing, it is the core values of a civil servant system—professionalism, impartiality, integrity, to name a few—that challenge the central government’s authority.

The People’s Daily has been demanding “Scrape the Poison off the Bone”, meaning annihilating the essence of Hong Kong, once and for all.

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The ultimate goal is to dismantle Hong Kong’s institutions, core values (such as civil society, free press and independent judiciary), and interdependent interest groups living on the existing social structure, giving way to a reconstructed society under Beijing’s control.

By then, Beijing could take advantage of Hong Kong being the international financial centre, and distort the game’s rules for its domestic interests.

Step 2: Allowing a false sense of liberty following the death of an authentic Hong Kong

Draconian governance is unsustainable, and even less so with Hong Kong being an international city under the rule of a very unwelcomed government. Once the Hong Kong system, which has succeeded in keeping authoritarianism at bay, has collapsed, Beijing might loosen its grip like in other Chinese cities, allowing dissenting voices to some degree.

The public may feel a false sense of liberty, mistaking it for the end of oppression. Under this new order, Beijing would crack down on interest groups in Hong Kong through suppression—by creating rivalry and waging wars against each other as in Mao’s “line struggle”.

This suppression would be veiled by elections, which are fundamentally different from universal suffrage, which balances different groups’ interests for a greater benefit of society. 

How effective is Beijing’s playbook in the internet era? 

This is the first time the Chinese Communist Party has performed social restructuring since the Cultural Revolution, and Hong Kong may not share the same fate as other Chinese cities in the internet era.  

In the pursuit of complete control, Beijing has inadvertently consolidated the “Global Hong Kong” community: those who have ties to Hong Kong (including one million Hongkongers living overseas and their next generation) or who sympathize with the protests are bonding over distrust against Beijing. The population is possibly as big as those living in Hong Kong.

Furthermore, Beijing’s iron fist has alienated even the pro-establishment population, who will vote with their feet by moving out with their capital. This global community will publicize every wrongful act by the Beijing and Hong Kong governments, making Hong Kong a global exhibit for expanding Chinese influence.

Central. Photo: Benjamin Yuen/United Social Press.

This “Global Hong Kong” community can also help Hongkongers living in the city survive the clampdown. Workers who face retaliation in the workplace can pursue opportunities overseas, e.g. through the identity economy, the Yellow Economic Circle.

Students renouncing the national education curriculum can take international examinations instead. Outspoken celebrities can start channels online if facing boycotts by local media. Hongkongers can simply conceal their identity online to bypass government surveillance.

The US has aided in this process by giving immunity to Hongkongers convicted in the 2019 protests by allowing them to apply for visas and schools through the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, and other countries may follow suit.

Even before Beijing gains complete control, “Global Hong Kong” has emerged and energised the local movement, and will evolve into a parallel structure detached from the establishment, a force of resistance Beijing cannot readily get rid of. 

Who will lose when Hong Kong crumbles?

Hollowing out Hong Kong would bring irreversible damage to the city’s reputation and its financial and political value beyond Beijing’s imagination.

Carrie Lam’s administration may identify its vocal political opponents in the education system from the exam question controversy, but prioritising political correctness over critical thinking raises questions on the rigour of the exam and education systems, tainting their international reputation.

Hong Kong as a global financial center is also at risk; when regulators’ hands are tied under Beijing’s influence they cannot run credible compliance programmes. 

If Hong Kong is becoming just another Chinese city, Beijing—in this new Cold War—would have no alternative city to perform Hong Kong’s prior functions as a financial centre which attracts foreign investment and bypasses sanctions against China.

However, the global community can still leverage countries outside Beijing’s control, like Singapore or Taiwan, to continue its access to the Chinese market. In this process, the US will strengthen its China containment in Taiwan as well. 

Hong Kong has made ample progress on the “Autocrats’ 12-step programme” described by the Stanford scholar Larry Diamond —with its institutions and civil society attacked on multiple fronts.

However, as long as Hongkongers are aware of Beijing’s playbook, the city, with its high transparency, can become the whistleblower in the New Cold War. The increasing pressure from Beijing will strengthen the bonds of the “Global Hong Kong” community, which will keep local resistance alive. 

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Simon Shen

Dr Simon Shen is the founding chairman of Glocal Learning Offices (GLOs), an international relations start-up company. He also serves as an adjunct associate professor at the University of Hong Kong, the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.