“Thus we left Hong Kong to her fate and the hope that Martin Lee, the leader of the Democrats, would not be arrested,” wrote Prince Charles in his journal after Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997.
Twenty-three years later, his premonitions unfortunately came true. Lee, the 81-year-old founder of the Democratic party and a senior barrister, was among 15 veteran pro-democracy activists arrested by Hong Kong police on Saturday on charges of illegal assembly, accused of being involved in unapproved protests last year.
Just the night before, China’s liaison office in Hong Kong declared it was not bound by a clause in the city’s post-handover mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which bars the Chinese government from interfering in local affairs. Amid accusations of overreach by Beijing into the city’s legislative council and judiciary escalate, the liaison office’s chief, Luo Huining, also called for national security legislation to be urgently passed.
China’s high-profile posturing over Hong Kong over the past week signals a turbulent political future for the semi-autonomous city, with mass protests likely to return to the streets, analysts say.
Perceived national security threats amid an economic downturn sparked by the coronavirus pandemic and tense relationship with the US has prompted China to prod Hong Kong, roiled by months of anti-government protests since June last year, to speed up legislation of a controversial anti-subversion law which was shelved in 2003, they say.
China has long been growing impatient with Hong Kong’s perceived “waywardness” – particularly after pro-democracy movements in 2014 and last year. In a policy white paper in June 2014, China asserted that it had “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong and in August that year, ruled that it would allow “universal suffrage” so long as it can first vet the leadership candidates. In the communique of a key Communist party meeting in November 2019, the fourth plenum, Beijing told the city to “perfect” its legal system to safeguard national security.
“Beijing’s consistent attitude is to speed up the legislation of article 23 to bring Hong Kong under its national security network and to complete its control over Hong Kong,” said Wu Qiang, a political scientist formerly with Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University. “It is determined that Hong Kong will not become a ‘loophole’ in the nation’s security.”
While the world is battling the Covid-19 pandemic, Beijing took the opportunity to crack down on Hong Kong’s most respected pro-democracy leaders, analysts say.
“While China was brought on its knees by Covid-19, [president] Xi Jinping held back from implementing the hardline on Hong Kong, but now that China has come out of it while the western democracies are on their knees and dependent on China for personal protective equipment, what better time than now to take the offensive?” said Prof Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London.
“Bolster authoritarian control amid the pandemic – this is Beijing’s thinking,” said Wu.
Analysts warn that China’s repression of Hong Kong will only intensify in the near future, particularly in the run-up to the September legislature election. Some also believe China wants to pass the article 23 legislation before the election, which might see the democrats claiming a majority amid widespread discontent aimed at the government.
“After the immediate ‘shock and awe’ effect, Beijing will turn to the legislative council and the September election,” said Kenneth Chan, political scientist at the Hong Kong Baptist University. Draconian anti-subversion laws passed under article 23 “would give the authorities new powers to persecute and purge the pro-democracy leaders and activists before the legislative council election in September,” he said.
To ensure that the outcomes of the election are controlled, Chan expected that Beijing may seek to disqualify some democrats, or cancel the election altogether and appoint a “provisional Legislative Council” filled with pro-establishment figures.
With Beijing’s recent manoeuvre, it might be puzzling why China does not seem to care about throttling “the goose that lays the golden eggs”. But Tsang said even though China is still dependent on Hong Kong for trade and business, its dependency has lessened markedly over the past three decades, with Hong Kong’s GDP shrinking from about a third the size of China’s in the 1980s to less than 3% in 2019.
“The loss of 3% of GDP would be painful but not intolerable,” Tsang said of Chinese leaders’ mentality. “So it is not unreasonable for Beijing to feel that … it would be a price China can pay. So, why not take a hard line now?”
But as resilient as China may seem, analysts and activists warn that this is not the end of them game. Beijing-based political commentator Zhang Lifan said China’s “Mao-era struggle mentality that wants to win at all cost” may ultimately backfire.
Joshua Wong, the 23-year-old political activist, does not believe China will succeed in intimidating Hongkongers but would instead “prompt them to resist”.
If the anti-subversion law goes ahead, hundreds of thousands are expected to be up in arms again, reigniting the anti-government movement which has largely paused amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“Driving the opposition into the political wilderness serves Beijing’s short-term interest, but it will embolden the opposition in civil society and attract more, not less, international attention,” Chan said.
Martin Lee, a drafter of the Basic Law, said he felt “proud to walk the road of democracy with the outstanding youths in Hong Kong” and his experience has only strengthened his will.
“I’ll not give up,” he told the Guardian.