China Shows its Fist in Hong Kong

Changes intended to show who’s in charge

Beijing suddenly has dramatically increased the pressure on Hong Kong, arranging for the arrest of influential independent voices, engineering the sacking of the Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Patrick Nip Tak-kuen, demanding the passage of a security clause in the basic law as soon as possible to combat so-called ‘foreign interference” and putting a former  public security minister with responsibility for Hong Kong under investigation in China.

The events, coming while much of the diplomatic world is paralyzed by the Covid-19 crisis, in effect end any fiction that Hong Kong and China would enjoy separate systems until 2047. They also appear to be a signal that Beijing now understands that the weakness and inattention of President Donald Trump and the US government allow it free rein in the region.

The appointment of Central  Liaison Office director Luo Huining (above) in January was a signal that he would enforce China’s harder line. On April 15, he called for a new Article 23 of the Basic Law to be passed as soon as possible to combat what he alleged was foreign interference. In 2003, the Hong Kong government’s plans to push through Article 23, a controversial security law, sparked protests by half a million people, causing the law to be shelved and resulting in the sacking of the CH Tung, Beijing’s anointed chief executive. It remains to be seen if the current controversy brings hundreds of thousands into the streets again.

Over a tumultuous weekend, 15 of the territory’s most respected independent political figures were arrested including Martin Lee, a QC and co-founder of the Democratic Party; Margaret Ng, the former legal sector lawmaker; labor leader and former legislator Lee Cheuk-yan, and Jimmy Lai, the publisher of the opposition newspaper Apple Daily. The police are said to have a long list of others to arrest for their roles in protests that shook Hong Kong in 2014 and 2019.  The 15 were subsequently released on bail.

The sacking of Patrick Nip and his replacement by Immigration Director Eric Tsang Kwok-wai  was reported on April 21 in the South China Morning Post, quoting unnamed sources including an unnamed senior Hong Kong government official who said it was “not surprising” that Tsang would replace Nip, because Tsang has a good relationship with Chinese authorities.

A less-publicized but equally troubling example of pressure from Beijing appears to have forced Hong Kong officials to draft three versions of a press release in a matter of hours over the weekend that resulted in language representing in a weakening of the autonomous territory’s basic law.

At 9.05 pm on April 18, the government issued the first version of the press release, stating the Hong Kong Liaison Office as well as the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and their staff shall abide by Hong Kong laws under Article 22(3) of the city’s Basic Law, an indication that local officials believed Hong Kong law, and not Beijing’s, took precedence.  

The first version also said the Liaison Office was set up in Hong Kong in accordance with Article 22(2), which stipulates the establishment of the office requires the consent of the Hong Kong government.  The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office acts as the Chinese government’s communication channel with Hong Kong and Macau, while the Liaison office is China’s representative in Hong Kong.

At 1.22 AM on April 19, the Hong Kong government issued the third and final version of its press release, which said the Liaison Office was set up by the central government, not by departments of the central government as stated in Article 22(2). The final version omitted mention of Article 22(3). In other words, the Liaison Office is not at the sufferance of the Hong Kong government.  

Later that day, 22 pro-democracy lawmakers issued a joint statement condemning Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-Ngor for “betraying Hong Kong” in her flip-flop. The Hong Kong government, the statement said, “called a deer a horse and kowtowed to Beijing’s Liaison Office.”

“Calling a deer a horse” refers to a 2,200-year-old incident in Chinese history when a power-hungry usurper, Zhao Gao, brought a deer to court. Zhao, a minister, said the deer was a horse and asked a group of officials whether the animal was a deer or horse. Zhao had the officials who told the truth executed, while the others said it was a horse out of fear.

On April 20, the website of the Liaison Office carried an article by Chinese state news agency Xinhua, saying the Hong Kong government “stressed” that the Liaison Office doesn’t come under Article 22. A clause in Article 22 forbids departments of the central government from interfering in affairs administered by the Hong Kong government. By throwing out Article 22, the Liaison Office now has given itself the right to interfere in the affairs of the Hong Kong government’s affairs.

The Xinhua article quoted the Beijing-backed Friends of Hong Kong Association saying the Liaison Office, as well as the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, have a right to express their “stern views” on what is right and wrong over major questions related to Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity.

At a press conference on April 21, Carrie Lam said it was not “very meaningful” to talk about the internal process of the press release.

“What is important is the crux of the matter. The crux of the matter is Hong Kong is facing a serious situation as far as the Legislative Council House Committee is concerned. After a period of six months, 15 meetings and hours of discussion, we are still not able to have a Chairman of the House Committee to enable us to take through the various legislative proposals,” she said.

By removing Article 22, the Liaison Office’s powers have increased, while Hong Kong’s autonomy under “one country, two systems” has correspondingly diminished.

In a repeat of 2003, the Hong Kong government tried to push a bill that would facilitate the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China in 2019, only to spark massive protests which caused the bill to be also shelved.

These events show Luo means business. His reputation as an enforcer was forged in Shanxi province, where he was party secretary from June 2016 to November 2019. During his tenure as the top official of the gritty northern province with long cold winters, he oversaw an anti-corruption campaign which took down an estimated one-third of senior officials.

China’s anti-corruption campaign has ominous implications for Hong Kong. On April 19, China’s anti-corruption agency, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, announced deputy public security minister Sun Lijun was under investigation. On the same night, Chinese security minister Zhao Kezhi held a meeting in Beijing in which he denounced Sun for his severe malfeasance and “poisonous influence.”

One of Sun’s roles was as public security director of the Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan Office, a post he had held since December 2017.  Has Sun’s “poisonous influence” infected Hong Kong? With his removal, will some powerful people in Hong Kong be investigated? In China, it is not uncommon for corrupt businessmen and officials to be protected by corrupt police officers.

Ironically, in December 2017, Sun and Hong Kong Security Secretary John Lee Ka-chiu signed an agreement whereby the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities would inform each other of suspected offenses “endangering national security” within 30 days and if a resident of each jurisdiction was detained for suspected crimes in the other jurisdiction within seven days.