Xi Sees Domestic Enemies Behind Hong Kong Protests

Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang directing protests from jail?

Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping may be seeing the specter of his domestic political enemies in the widespread unrest that has gripped Hong Kong for months, according to China watchers. Rather than acknowledging that Hong Kong’s angry residents themselves resent the mainland's heavy-handed rule, Xi and his mandarins in Beijing appear to believe that disgraced and imprisoned former rival Bo Xilai and others may play some role in fomenting the trouble.

Even though they are behind bars as a result of Xi’s scorched-earth anticorruption campaign, the Chinese leader seems to believe Bo, the former Communist Party chief in Chongqing and so-called “Red prince” son of the late deputy prime minister Bo Yibo, and Zhou Yongkang, the once-feared head of domestic security, are still active and using the Hong Kong demonstrations to weaken Xi. This is evidenced by repeated references to the “poisonous influence” of Bo and Zhou on the website of China’s anti-graft agency, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), and allegations that their influence hasn’t been eliminated.

Since last year, protests have continued in Hong Kong against a proposed law to extradite suspects from Hong Kong to mainland China. So strong was the opposition, with hundreds of thousands of protestors in some demonstrations, that the Hong Kong government shelved the bill. Protests have been suppressed by the Covid-19 crisis and may stay that way as the territory prepares for September elections

However, the recent arrests of a Chinese businessman and Sun Lijun, a senior Chinese police officer who previously had jurisdiction over Hong Kong security, lend credibility to the belief that Xi suspects powerful forces within China’s establishment are using the protests to undo him.

Lee Henley Hu Xiang, a mainland Chinese businessman who is a citizen of Belize, is scheduled to be tried in a court in Guangzhou, the Guangdong capital, according to an April 27 report in the Global Times, a newspaper widely regarded as the government’s mouthpiece. Lee was arrested in Guangdong last November.

Lee “allegedly funded activities that threatened China’s national security, including conspiring with foreign forces to support Hong Kong separatists,” the Global Times reported. He is the first overseas national to be prosecuted by Chinese authorities for interfering in Hong Kong activities.

Lee’s case confirms that Xi’s enemies within China are supporting the Hong Kong protests, a China watcher told Asia Sentinel. Some members of the “Red second generation,” the children of current or former senior Chinese leaders, are opposed to Xi and are riding “on the bandwagon of Hong Kong’s protest movement,” said the China watcher, who declined to be named.

Lee was formerly a senior executive of a US company, Eastern America, also called Meidong, said the Global Times. Eastern America, headquartered in Boston in the United States, is involved in building and industrial projects and has offices and factories in China. An Eastern America executive told the Global Times that Lee was previously an executive of the company but has been relieved of his post.

At Bo’s 2013 trial, Lee testified that he and Eastern America helped transfer money to buy a sumptuous villa on the French Riviera for Bo’s wife Gu Kailai, according to Chinese court documents. The purchase was made through an overseas company to hide the tracks of Bo and his wife.

Bo, a former Chinese Minister of Commerce and party secretary of Chongqing municipality, is serving a life sentence for corruption. Gu is serving a life sentence for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.

Senior police officers taken down

In January 2015, Chinese state media said Bo and Zhou, formerly China’s top police official, were part of the same clique. In June 2015, Zhou became the first former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, which consists of the handful of most powerful leaders of the country, ever to be jailed, receiving a life sentence for corruption. As well as acting as Minister of Public Security, Zhou was Secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, which oversees all legal enforcement of China.

The Chinese government put has Zhou’s former Public Security Deputy Minister Sun Lijun and Meng Hongwei, previously the first Chinese head of Interpol, in the same league. At a meeting of the Public Security Ministry in Beijing on April 19, Public Security Minister Zhao Kezhi said, “The poisonous influence of people like Zhou Yongkang, Meng Hongwei, and Sun Lijun must be eradicated from thought, politics, organization and our way of doing things.”

Earlier, on April 19, China’s anti-corruption agency, the CCDI, announced on its website that Sun, who previously had responsibility for Hong Kong, was under investigation. At the meeting documented on the website of China’s Ministry of Public Security, Zhao accused Sun of “not showing respect.” The China watcher said this is the first time the Chinese government has used the phrase “not showing respect” in its charges against a disgraced former official.

“So obviously this is the main reason for his downfall, not paying enough respect to Xi,” the China watcher added. Zhao said that “for a long time,” Sun did not observe the “political discipline” of the Chinese Communist Party, indicating he was disloyal to the party.

Yet, as one of the most senior Chinese police officers in charge of Hong Kong, Sun was heavily involved in the Hong Kong police action against the city’s protesters, said the China watcher. Sun also oversaw the abduction of Chinese tycoon Xiao Jianhua from Hong Kong to mainland China in January 2017, as well as the arrest in 2015 of executives of Hong Kong bookshops which sold politically sensitive books on Chinese leaders which are banned in mainland China, the China watcher added.

Since Sun apparently did such favors for the Chinese government, why was he punished? A clue is given in Zhao’s speech, which said that “two-faced people” and “people who engage in two-faced factions” are “definitely not allowed,” hinting at Sun’s treachery and involvement in factions. Sun is believed to belong to the faction of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

Zhao said the investigation of Sun was “very timely.” The detention of Meng in mainland China in September 2018 was similarly abrupt. Chinese leaders apparently did not care that the arrest of the first Chinese chief of Interpol would dent China’s international image.

The urgency of the arrests of Sun and Zhao raises the possibility that in both cases, plots might have been afoot to threaten Xi’s position and perhaps even his safety. On January 21, Meng was sentenced to 13.5 years of jail in a Chinese court and fined RMB2 million (US$282 million) for corruption and abuse of power.

The Public Security Ministry is being overhauled and Xi is placing his confidants in the ministry, said the China watcher.

Like Sun, Fu Zhenghua was formerly Public Security Deputy Minister. In his most recent post, Fu, who is believed to belong to Jiang’s faction, was Justice Minister. On April 29, China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, announced on its website that Fu has resigned as Justice Minister. Replacing him as Justice Minister is Tang Yijun, who is believed to be Xi’s ally.

If massive demonstrations occur in Hong Kong in the coming months, it remains to be seen how Beijing will handle them now that Sun is no longer involved with Hong Kong police matters. The appointments of Luo Huining, 65, to take charge of the Central Liaison Office in Hong Kong in January, and Xia Baolong, 67, to head Hong Kong & Macau Affairs Office, in February presaged a harder line against dissent, to be followed by a widening crackdown on the independence of the  Hong Kong government itself.