For decades, Hong Kong has been a small island of freedom linked to the one-party dictatorship in mainland China.
Yesterday, the ruling Communist Party in Beijing made it clear that China plans to change all that.
During the annual election of a parliament, the National People’s Congress – which meets every year to make a mark, regardless of what the Politburo decides – was an important item on the agenda for a new security law for Hong Kong.
The law prohibits what Beijing describes as “terrorism, secession and treason”. It is an attack on the freedoms in Hong Kong that is likely to abolish freedom of expression and make dissent illegal. And it is almost certainly in response to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong that have brought millions to the streets in the past year, posing the greatest challenge to Chinese rule since the transfer in 1997.
Pan-Democratic lawmakers struggle with security as they protest new security laws at Hong Kong Legislative Council House Committee meeting
Dissidents in China know how such laws work – they make any criticism of Communist Party policies a crime.
The rest of the world may be pointing fingers at Beijing’s efforts to silence the early stages of Wuhan’s corona virus, but the truth is, Covid-19 is less of a concern to Beijing than Hong Kong.
The reason for this is that the pandemic mainly threatens ordinary people – while Hong Kong, an island of self-government and democracy in China, could allow the virus of dissent to slip through a gap in the armor of the one-party state. Dissent that it could infect more than a billion Chinese.
Since the transfer of Hong Kong in 1997, China has claimed that it adhered to the ‘one country, two systems’ policy which allows Hong Kong to operate independently from China and was an important requirement for the future governance of the area during the transfer talks .
But Hong Kong’s rights to make its own laws and to enjoy media freedoms unknown in the rest of China have been increasingly suffocated by the communist regime.
China’s authoritarian behavior towards the territory sparked a year of often violent street protests in Hong Kong. These came to a halt due to the advent of the coronavirus and the strict social distance.
Pro-democracy legislator Wu Chi-wai fights with police during a march against new security laws at the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong
The absence of protests provided the perfect opportunity for Chinese President Xi to cynically enact the comprehensive security law. Even when the proposed legislation was announced, the Chinese prime minister insisted that it strengthen the “one country, two systems” policy. That was a classic communist double-mindedness.
What Beijing wants is to reduce Hong Kong to the level of the so-called “autonomous regions” such as Tibet or Xinxiang. MPs from Chinese ethnic minorities who wear colorful costumes in the country’s parliament, but they vote in only one way – like everyone else.
The turbulence in Hong Kong politics is an affront to the conformity cherished in Beijing. The real fear is that under the cover of the new law, China will impose the kind of police state that enforces thought reform on problem-makers elsewhere in China, especially Buddhists in Tibet and Muslim Uyghurs in Xinxiang.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to hold press conference in Hong Kong after attending National People’s Congress opening session
Optimists suggest that China would never do a vibrant economy like Hong Kong in its remote, poverty-stricken regions. Would Beijing really risk killing the goose that lays so many golden eggs and has enormous commercial and financial influence around the world?
But that is to misunderstand the mindset of President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party. Whenever there was a push in the past, clinging to power at any cost was the party’s only consistent principle.
It has been allowing its people to make money for 40 years, but the government has not faced any challenge.
Eddie Chu, a pro-democratic legislator, is being removed by security in a scuffle with pro Beijing lawmakers
Street protests in Hong Kong were an affront to Beijing, but the inability of local officials to get anything done in the area’s legislative assembly, which has been in existence since 1997, was the last straw. Beijing has now decided to take action. Secret police could soon sneak onto the streets of Hong Kong and law-enforcement courts stifle disagreements and freedom of thought, while dissidents could be “disappeared.” Western companies and companies could soon flee the coast of Hong Kong.
Covid-19 should not distract us from the implications of all this. In the last Cold War, West Berlin was an island of freedom within the Soviet bloc. Its survival was a beacon of hope for the subjects of communism in Eastern Europe.
Likewise, Hong Kong was the beacon of the West in communist China. And if we remain true to our democratic principles and confront China with Hong Kong, President Xi’s attack on former British territory could spark another cold war.
- Mark Almond is director of the Crisis Research Institute, Oxford