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The Crisis in Hong Kong: Xi Jinping Loots a Burning House

June 25, 2020

[Translation by Human Rights in China]

At precisely the moment when countries around the world are still focusing their energies on combating the pandemic of the century, and the situation in Hong Kong deteriorates by the hour, the Chinese authorities have seized the opportunity to announce a “Hong Kong National Security Law” at this year’s Two Congresses—the National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). Prior to this, authorities had already delivered a one-two punch to remove possible obstacles to the law.

First was the pronouncement from the Director of the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government in Hong Kong, Luo Huining, that Hong Kong has always been a national security weak spot for China, that “Hong Kong must not be allowed to become the breach for national security risks.” The statement was followed by the arrest of 15 pro-democracy activists, including eminent barrister Martin Lee and Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai, by the Hong Kong police on accusations of participating in anti-extradition protests last year. Then, in mid-May, pro-democracy members of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council were ejected from the meeting of the House Committee, clearing the way for the reelection of pro-establishment legislator Starry Lee Wai-king as the chairperson of the Committee. At that point, Hong Kong fell into enemy hands completely, and “one country, two systems” was dead.

China’s shameless and brazen trampling on Hong Kong’s system of rule of law to force through the Hong Kong National Security Law is far from an impulsive act. Rather, it is part of a meticulous and careful plan. China intentionally concealed the facts of the coronavirus epidemic, causing a worldwide pandemic, incurring the wrath of the international community, and prompting a spate of international calls to hold China to account. Under siege at home and abroad, Xi Jinping, the helmsman of the Communist Party of China, decided he may as well go all out, wage a war against whatever may come while other countries are preoccupied, and settle the Hong Kong question once and for all.

Since the return of Hong Kong, the region has been a major source of concern for Beijing, that it will become the bridgehead for toppling the one-party system on the mainland. Ever since the blowback from the cross-border kidnapping of the Causeway Bay booksellers a few years back, Beijing has felt that Hong Kong’s rule of law under the “one country, two systems” framework has been a nuisance that must be gotten rid of. The fact that the anti-extradition movement waged so fearlessly by the Hong Kong people last year has not yet been quelled, coupled with, in particular, the big win by democrats in the district council elections last November, has been a source of great humiliation for Xi Jinping, bankrupting his “political strongman” image. In addition, if the upcoming Hong Kong Legislative Council elections turn out the wrong way, he could be held to account within the CPC. To be sure, the label of being the man who “lost” Hong Kong is not something Xi Jinping can bear.

Just as Xi Jinping was facing his political Waterloo in Hong Kong, he also made a mess in handling the new coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. Both disasters stemmed from the imperative of maintaining stability—in order to “hold on to the CPC family legacy.” That imperative caused him to miss the window at the beginning of the outbreak to contain the spread, resulting in an epidemic ravaging the whole country, and then the rest of the world. Countries all over the world have suffered greatly. On May 18, 2020, at the World Health Assembly, the entire membership of the WHO, 194 countries—including China’s ally, Russia—passed a resolution to conduct an independent investigation into WHO’s handling of information of the epidemic in the early stages, a move prompted by the belief that WHO had helped China downplay the seriousness of the outbreak. Prior to this, China had steadfastly resisted the call for an investigation; but against overwhelming pressure, it had no choice but to sign on, while also trying to stall the efforts at the same time.

China has not been this isolated on the international stage since facing global opprobrium in the wake of the June Fourth crackdown on the 1989 Democracy Movement. This current problem has come to overwhelm all other issues at home, intensifying every other kind of domestic conflict, and severely straining social stability. To break through the diplomatic quandary, Xi Jinping, aside from continuing his two-fisted strategy of deploying both the hard “wolf warrior” diplomacy and the soft “checkbook” diplomacy—as means of dividing the international community and diffusing the pressure of accountability—is repurposing Mao Zedong’s old trick by adopting the “you fight your battle, I fight mine” strategy of preemptive strike. This is precisely his thinking in launching the offensive on Hong Kong. As he is outmatched, Xi seeks to avoid the enemy’s main forces by opening another front and moving to a new battleground of his own choosing.

Xi Jinping is likely to have assessed the consequences of this strategy: having already wronged the international community, there’s nothing left to lose, just like smashing an already broken jar, or getting one more bite when you’re already covered in fleas. But it is a gamble. If he manages in one fell swoop to solve the Hong Kong problem, then this victory would overshadow his hundred failures. And with this, he could transform his passivity into proactivity, and relieve the internal pressure he faces within the Party calling for accountability. China has always feared the U.S. response the most. That Xi dares to make such a reckless move obviously stems from his brash, combative, and hot-tempered nature. More important, Xi sees an opportunity to take advantage of the leaderless state of the international community. Since Donald Trump assumed the U.S. presidency, he has pursued a policy of isolationism and more or less completely done away with U.S. leadership on the world stage, to China’s great benefit. Xi’s wishful thinking here is that so long as he agrees to import U.S. agricultural products, he can pacify Trump. Even if he lets loose on Hong Kong and incurs strong repercussion from the international community, that repercussion would be more like thunder with little rain, not amounting to much. And in the end, it would be just like Russia annexing Crimea: it just happened.

On the question of national security legislation, although Xi Jinping wants to ram it through Hong Kong, violating the wishes of the people, he also knows he is in the wrong. That is why he does not dare to do it properly and let Hong Kong itself formulate the legislation in accordance with the requirement of Hong Kong’s Basic Law. Instead, in order to go around the Hong Kong Legislative Council, he had the Two Congresses authorize the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) to formulate the legislation, implementing regulations, and enforcement mechanisms, and have the Special Administrative Region government simply announce it and put it into effect. Mainland officials took care to argue that this is not legislation mandated by Article 23 of the Basic Law (a law that the “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact”), but legislation to be inserted into Annex III as provided in Article 18 of the Basic Law. Immediately afterwards, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam expressed her support, saying that “it is the authority of the country to legislate on its own national security.” One can anticipate that before the Legislative Council elections in September this year, the authorities will vigorously promulgate implementing regulations of the national security law, which they will use to condemn pro-democracy representatives, and thereby intimidate the Hong Kong people and ensure the wished-for results of the elections.

This is a life-and-death contest. The Hong Kong people have already been pushed to the brink, left with no place of retreat, and are fighting the final battle. Just recently, the people of Hong Kong held their largest public demonstration since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in a stirring demonstration of their will. The people of Hong Kong are suffering. The international community cannot just stand by and let China do as it wishes. China has torn up the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration and betrayed the promise of “one country, two systems.” Exploiting the ravage of the global pandemic, Xi Jinping is in effect looting a burning house, killing Hong Kong. What he is doing is nothing less than openly declaring war on the international community and making himself enemy of the world. As the saying goes, “A just cause finds abundant support, an unjust one finds little.” The international community should abandon its long-held policy of appeasement towards China, and firmly support the people of Hong Kong. The time for action has come.