Tensions are running high in Hong Kong after the pro-Beijing government charged 47 democracy activists and politicians with sedition under the controversial new national security law.
The group is accused of running what has been described as an unofficial “primary” poll in July last year in which more than 600,000 Honkongese voted to select candidates for a legislative election which was due to be held in September. The election was subsequently postponed by Carrie Lam, the territory’s pro-Beijing chief executive, who cited the coronavirus as the reason for delaying the vote.
The charges come just days after the Hong Kong government introduced new oath requirements for public officials – swearing loyalty not to their constituents but Beijing and the Communist Party. The oaths are part of a plan outlined on February 23 by Xia Baolong, the director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, for major electoral reforms to ensure only “patriots” can stand for office.
This is designed to ensure that pro-Beijing officials will hold all the offices in the city’s executive, legislature and judiciary branches as well as statutory bodies. The move echoes words from Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier in the month when he said: “Hong Kong must always be governed by patriots”.
Pro-democrats accused the Hong Kong government of narrowing the scope for political participation, while the pro-establishment camp believed that the newly proposed requirements would work hand in hand with the National Security Law (NSL) to further eliminate “anti-China” elements from the city by providing it with a “patriotic” test. The NSL, imposed by Beijing in June 2020, has been widely criticised both by pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong itself and by the international community as effectively outlawing opposition movements.
The evolution of China’s posture towards the former British colony has largely tracked China’s development as a major global power. When the “one country, two systems” principle was agreed in the 1980s as part of the legally binding handover agreement between China and the UK, the city was given the assurance it could retain its own economic and administrative systems for 50 years with “a high degree of autonomy”.
At that stage, China was a rather marginal economic and geopolitical actor. But the rise of China to great power status, especially the country’s unprecedented economic growth, has inevitably caused a change in China’s perception of itself and others.
Hong Kong is one of the key examples of that change of perception. After handover in 1997, Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) but is – on every level – part of China. The former British colony still fulfils its function as a conduit between China and the world, but even this has gradually become symbolic as China now has several other important financial hubs, principally Shanghai.
China’s economy has grown rapidly over the past two decades, while, on the other hand, the outside world – particularly the US and Europe – was pushed into recession by the 2008 financial crisis and had barely recovered when COVID-19 hit.
China’s changing global power has radically changed the context which the Hong Kong issue sits. Beijing has clearly found it difficult, if not possible, to maintain the same attitude towards the former UK territory as it had at handover in 1997, especially in the face of rising political instability in the city and the deterioration of US-China relations during the presidency of Donald Trump.
The new US president, Joe Biden, made human rights in Hong Kong and elsewhere a focus of his first phone call with Xi Jinping at the beginning of February. Biden pressed Xi on Hong Kong, Taiwan and China’s treatment of its Uighur Muslim minority. The Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said Xi had pushed back on these concerns on China’s internal affairs, saying: “The US should respect China’s core interests and act with caution.”
The deterioration of relations between Washington and Beijing has been evident for some time, for example in 2019 when the US Congress passed Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which established that the US would review its stance on Hong Kong annually with regard to China’s upholding of the 1997 Handover Agreement. China responded by cancelling the US navy’s Hong Kong visit in 2019.
Another important indication of China’s more assertive stance towards Hong Kong is that, 23 years after handover, the Central Military Dock was officially placed under the control of the People’s Liberation Army Navy on September 29 2020. The dock was part of a Sino-UK agreement made in 1994 on the arrangements for the future use of military sites in the former British colony.
It is evident that Beijing’s failure to uncouple Hong Kong from its colonial past created “jurisdictional loopholes” – the establishment of the national security law and the new oath requirement shows Beijing taking legal and legislative action to fully “decolonise” Hong Kong.
Hong Kong can still enjoy a certain degree of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” principle while remaining a Special Administrative Zone of China. But Beijing is expected to make more “loyalty” demands like the recent oath requirements to ensure that the notion of “one country” is a prerequisite for viability of Hong Kong’s “two systems” – at least, until the agreement ceases to have legal force in 2047.