The central government in Beijing has improvised an interesting way of trying to manage its unruly southern border region. Attempting to subdue rebellions on the periphery of empire has been a challenge since ancient times, and the lessons have been handed down over the centuries. If allowed to grow unchecked, such rebellions can lead to the disintegration of empires and the overthrow of those who allowed it to crumble.

Today, under Communist Party rule, the challenge can be addressed more efficiently than in the past — but only up to a point. Important decisions once made by national leaders can be promulgated with ease via the authority of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) in Beijing.

The Great Hall. File photo: Lukas Messmer/HKFP.

The Congress itself meets only once a year with formalities that are essentially symbolic and ceremonial. In contrast, the Standing Committee meets regularly throughout the year to issue decisions with the force of law. Hong Kong’s new national security law was promulgated on June 30 in this way.

But enforcing such a decision for Hong Kong is not so easy since Beijing officials are still trying to work behind the veneer of Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous post-colonial status. They now have a willing partner in the person of Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, who is nevertheless handicapped by her lack of political communications skills. She has openly admitted that she knows little about politics and apparently has no interest in trying to learn. Administration is her strong point and Hong Kong’s principal officials know they must follow her leadership, just as she does that of her superiors in Beijing.

Hence Beijing’s greatest problem here, for now, is the public at large. Since mid-2019, national leaders have been forced to contemplate what is essentially a popular Hong Kong insurrection against their rule. This has entailed over the past two decades a gradual erosion of the autonomy Hong Kong was promised when the colony was transferred from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

The handover ceremony for Hong Kong held on July 1, 1997. Photo: GovHK.

The 2019 upsurge of popular resentment was provoked by Chief Executive Lam herself, who tried to force an extradition bill through a reluctant Legislative Council. She initially refused to withdraw the bill, for the same reason that Beijing did not order her to do so, namely, fear of weakening her authority in the eyes of the public.

Beijing officials periodically rail against “populist” politics and are loath to be seen giving in to the autonomous will of the people, even when millions of them take to the streets as they did — at first peacefully — during the summer of 2019. But inattentive to politics as she is, Lam also miscalculated. She and her principal advisers later said that they were surprised by the outburst because they had concluded Hong Kong’s democracy movement was a spent force.

If there was still any doubt in official minds about the widespread popular nature of the insurgency, this was laid to rest by last November’s District Councils election.  Voters turned out in record numbers to elect candidates who had, for once, put all their many differences aside.

Carrie Lam. Photo: inmedia.net via CC2.0.

Candidates had campaigned on a joint platform of support for the protest movement and its demands that included universal suffrage elections. These also had been promised by Beijing and written into a new Basic Law constitution for use in governing post-1997 Hong Kong. 

By Election Day, November 24, 2019, the protests had turned violent with the ransacking of the Legislative Council’s main chamber, the trashing of shopping malls and subway stations, and the destructive occupation of two university campuses. The movement had maintained its non-violent tradition through 20 years of protest demonstrations. But instead of punishing candidates for their violation of the old civic code, voters gave them a ringing vote of confidence.

The new law: norms for general application

Since Beijing has no direct contact with those voters, authoritative statements from officials addressed to small selective audiences are being used to fill the void — a task made more difficult by the Covid-19 pandemic. Well-publicised webinars with video links available to all is the improvised solution.

Zhang Xiaoming. Photo: Webcast screenshot.

Zhang Xiaoming from the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing has featured in two of these presentations. Luo Huining, Director of Beijing’s Liaison Office here, has just done the honours in another. Together the three speeches point the way forward, towards the ends Beijing hopes to achieve, namely, comprehensive voluntary compliance with a comprehensive new national security regime.

Zhang Xiaoming made the first of these public presentations last June, soon after Beijing’s surprise announcement that promulgation of the security law was imminent. Zhang dissimulated but with good intentions. His introduction was meant to quiet fears. The new law, he said, would be narrowly focused and was intended to target only a very small number of miscreants.

The law criminalises acts of secession from China, subversion of government authority, terrorism meaning acts of politically motivated violence, and politically motived collusion with foreigners. The law is not retroactive, meaning it does not apply to acts committed before June 30.

Since most people here were not engaged in such weighty matters before June 30, and certainly would not be tempted in that direction afterwards, there initially seemed little for most people to worry about. And strictly speaking, Zhang did not lie. The law has been in effect for almost half a year and only a handful of people have so far been arrested and formally charged with the new crimes.

A flag-raising ceremony in Hong Kong in celebration of the Chinese National Day on October 1, 2020. Photo: GovHK.

Instead, everything is changing here with the aim of anticipating and pre-empting even the thought of committing such deeds. And those committed in the past are turning out to be just as important as those committed after June 30, 2020.

These changes are being introduced with new sets of rules and guidelines that define not what ordinary people might have thought the new crimes entail but what Beijing means by them. The new norms also indicate what the central government is now mandating Hong Kong’s government to implement and what its leading officials are hastening to enforce.

Standards for everything are being recalibrated, with explanations that sound stilted and out of place because Hong Kong officials are now using Beijing’s language to explain the new rules Meanwhile, Beijing officials and the pro-Beijing media are setting the pace and publicising progress at every step along the way.

Restoring order after last year’s chaos must entail eliminating the conditions that allowed the protests to take hold in the first place. Hence the need to reform every relevant sector of society, with the aim of ensuring no such eruptions of public dissent can recur.

Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

So, far from just enforcing sanctions against the few acts criminalised by the new law, a whole new way of political life is being introduced and imposed on the entire community. By now, the most immediate sectors under official watch have been identified: last year’s protest leaders; law enforcement and judicial authorities; the media; education, teachers, and students; Legislative Councillors along with the newly elected district councillors. Prescribed correctives are also underway in every sector.

Zhang Xiaoming’s second presentation on November 17, singled these changes. The tone had changed markedly since June. Zhang was now blaming misunderstandings about Hong Kong’s post-1997 governing principles for all of Hong Kong’s political troubles. He referred to Hong Kong’s post-1997 Basic Law, not as a constitution with fixed prescriptions and permanent guarantees. Instead, it should be thought of as a “living law” that evolves to accommodate problems as they accumulate over time.

Zhang also called specifically for reform of Hong Kong’s judiciary, which clearly had taken the Basic Law’s original promise of judicial independence too literally by treating it as a fixed and immutable guarantee.

The immediate context of Zhang’s November remarks was a just-issued NPCSC decision specifically disqualifying four Legislative Councillors for having violated the terms of their oaths of office that includes a declaration of loyalty to Hong Kong’s post-1997 political order.

Their actions had been committed before June 30 and they had since recanted with promises of future good conduct. But their post-June 30 promises were not sufficient in Beijing’s eyes to annul their pre-June 30 actions. They were not charged with any national security crime, but they were punished anyway, in accordance with the standards the new law was designed to instil.

The new law as a guide for future thought and action

Luo Huining gave the third major presentation on official intentions for Hong Kong’s post-June 30 political direction. The occasion was a December 4 webinar organised to mark the fourth anniversary of China’s recently designated National Constitution Day. All of China is asked to pause on this day and consider its implications. Hong Kong is far behind and has much catching up to do.

Photo: GovHK.

Director Luo blamed all the disruptive events of recent years on the after-effects of colonial rule. Too many people had continued to cling especially to the old colonial legal tradition. People were inclined to read Hong Kong’s post-colonial Basic Law as the be-all and end-all guide to Hong Kong’s way of life.

Such a mindset was wrong. It meant too many people here failed to acknowledge that Hong Kong’s post-colonial Basic Law was written in Beijing, not London. The Basic Law therefore derived not from Britain’s common law legal tradition, but from China’s own national constitution, which was the product of Communist Party rule. The new national security law derived from that constitution, without which Hong Kong had no future.

To that end, he said, more regulations must be devised, and the new law must be transformed into a set of “behavioural codes to be observed voluntarily by the public.” That they must also be enforced accordingly, by the Hong Kong government, law enforcement authorities, and the judiciary goes without saying.

The new national security regime in real time

Beijing sources are celebrating the fate of three young activists as the proper application of the new post-June 30 rules in dealing with Hong Kong’s political troubles.

From left to right: Agnes Chow, Ivan Lam and Joshua Wong. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The three young leaders are Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Ivan Lam. Their story is well known. It began when they were politically precocious youngsters in middle school and organized a protest against the government’s plan to introduce a compulsory course in national political education for all students.  Its aim was to inculcate patriotism at an early age. 

Agnes is the most politically articulate of the three, but Joshua was the initiator and has remained the dominant personality throughout. They organised a group of classmates and went around town publicising their cause. It caught on, and by the summer of 2012, they were leading tens of thousands in Sunday afternoon protest marches. The government relented and shelved the course. 

Their next project focused on preparations for what was to have been Hong Kong’s first universal suffrage election for its Chief Executive in 2017.  They read up on nominating procedures in different countries and were among the first to champion the cause of democratic nominations as the necessary first step for a genuinely democratic universal suffrage election.

Probably if they hadn’t done so much agitating about the importance of nominating procedures, Hong Kong’s democracy movement would not have been so determined to reject the official plan announced by Beijing on August 31, 2014. The 8.31 directive kept nominating procedures firmly under Beijing’s control.    

The 2014 Occupy Movement. Photo: HKFP.

Joshua Wong gained international fame when Time magazine made him cover boy for its Asian edition during the 2014 Occupy Movement street blockades. They were part of the citywide campaign for universal suffrage. But when the adults seemed to be losing their nerve ,in late September 2014, Joshua and his friends stormed the gates at government headquarters and launched the long-planned civil disobedience street occupations on their own.

In 2016, once they had all graduated from middle school, he and his friends formed a small political party they called Demosisto. It tried to steer an alternate course, different from the new localist Hong Kong-first advocacy that emerged from the failed 2014-15 campaign to win Beijing’s approval for “genuine” universal suffrage elections. They called their course self-determination but specifically not independence. 

Wong was also prominent among the delegations of Hongkongers travelling to the US to lobby for legislation aimed at supporting Hong Kong’s democracy movement, and has called for sanctions against Hong Kong government officials.  He has not, yet, been charged on security grounds for those acts.

But he was not allowed to contest the November 2019 District Councils election, ostensibly due to the self-determination advocacy, although several other self-determination candidates were allowed to compete.

As a final mark of his city-wide appeal, however, he was a top scorer in the informal straw poll organised by aspiring pro-democracy candidates last July, in preparation for the now postponed September 2020 Legislative Council election. Joshua Wong was on track to become one of Hong Kong’s youngest ever Legislative Councillors. The youngest was another of the old classmates, Nathan Law, elected in 2016 but soon disqualified in the oath-taking saga.

On June 21, 2019, Wong, Chow, and Lam had been present at a rowdy demonstration outside Hong Kong police headquarters. The crowd was protesting recent incidents of alleged police brutality during the initial stages of the anti-extradition law campaign. The event that day was one of the new spontaneous “leaderless” outbursts of 2019, but the three were there and easily recognisable — unlike many of the others.

Protesters outside police headquarters in Wan Chai on June 21, 2019. Photo: Studio Incendo.

They might have been charged with the lesser offense of participating in an illegal assembly but were tried instead for organising and inciting. Wong was also singled out for special treatment. There was no need for a trial since they all pleaded guilty. But release on bail was denied prior to final sentencing, on grounds they might abscond. 

Authorities then used the extra time to put out a press release announcing that X-rays had shown a shadow in Wong’s intestinal tract. Perhaps he had swallowed something like drugs or diamonds. Hence the need to place him in solitary confinement under medical supervision where his bodily functions could be properly monitored — while he was subjected to extended interrogation.  Given his prominence and leadership abilities, it is important that Wong also be prominent among those punished, discredited, and humiliated, to serve as a warning to others. 

After the sentences were announced — 13 months in prison for Wong, 10 months for Chow, seven months for Lam —  the pro-Beijing media headlined the news. The three were labelled “secessionists” — a national security crime for which they were neither charged nor tried in court. 

Photo: Todd R. Darling/HKFP.

There, at least, the trio would have been given a chance to argue their political case by trying to clarity the difference between what they meant by self-determination and actual independence. Labelling for use in the court of public opinion will nevertheless do just as well since the aim is to establish the new national security rules and standards that all are now expected to follow.

These pro-Beijing media accounts also commended the judiciary. Its members were finally responding to the new national security climate along with the official calls for judicial reform, to include stiff sentences for those found guilty of such crimes wherever the charges originate.

In this way, Beijing decision-makers are trying to shore up their defences against a modern-day precedent much closer to home than the ancient rebellions against imperial authority. The Soviet Union was also ruled by a Communist Party but grew somewhat lax in the impositions of dictatorship. That was the kind of mistake China’s current leadership seems determined to avoid. Allowing populist politics to continue unchecked in Hong Kong was too big a risk to take.


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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 follows the developing story of Hong Kong’s democracy movement as it struggles to maintain its coherence amid the growing pressures of integration within the Chinese political system.