Benny Tai Yiu-ting Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Kokuyo

The last time the Chinese leadership tried to impose an anti-sedition law on rebellious Hong Kong, in 2003, a half million people took to the streets in protest.

The legislation was subsequently shelved and the local official who had enthusiastically promoted it resigned in humiliation and disgrace.

Now, 15 years later, there has been a dramatic change in Hong Kong’s political environment that has corresponded with the rise of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who last month was granted a possible life term in office when the National People’s Congress voted overwhelmingly to abolish term limits for the presidency and vice-presidency.

This gives Xi an exalted status equivalent to that of Mao Zedong, the ruthless strongman who ruled the country for 27 years before his death in 1976.

In Hong Kong that once-disgraced security chief, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, has risen from her own ashes to become one of the most popular lawmakers in the Legislative Council (Legco), Hong Kong’s mini-parliament, and a member of the Executive Council that advises the city’s chief executive.

Moreover, the national security legislation Ip formerly championed may soon be back on the table as Xi and his yes-sir minions in the Hong Kong government look to quash a tradition of dissent against the Chinese Communist Party that has stubbornly persisted in the city 20 years after the handover from British to Chinese sovereignty and, in recent years, even led to calls for self-determination and independence.

Under fire

The latest sign that a tough new law against anti-China sentiment may be in the works is the current multi-pronged verbal assault – clearly coordinated by Chinese authorities and pro-Beijing politicos in Hong Kong – on Benny Tai Yiu-ting, an associate law professor at the University of Hong Kong and one of the founders of the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement that paralyzed key commercial parts of the city for two and a half months in 2014.

After broaching the theoretical possibility of future independence for Hong Kong at a recent academic forum in Taiwan, another sensitive hot spot for the Chinese leadership, Tai was rounded on with unusual force by an array of pro-Beijing forces that included a spokesman for the Hong Kong government, 41 legislative councillors, the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, the official state news agency Xinhua and Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, which called on Hong Kong officials to prosecute Tai for his remarks.

According to legal scholars, however, Tai has committed no offense under current Hong Kong laws. The obvious disconnect between Hong Kong’s common-law legal system, inherited from the British, and the aims and wishes of mainland authorities has set tongues wagging around the city over a possible revival of anti-subversion legislation under Article 23 of Hong Kong’s post-handover constitution, known as the Basic Law, which requires the city to “enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition [or] subversion” against the central government.

At the same time, Hong Kong officials must also consider the prospect of another mass demonstration that such a move could incite. But, as the all-powerful Xi and his subordinates in both Beijing and Hong Kong can clearly sense, it’s not 2003 anymore.

Weary of polarized politics

A vocal minority of so-called “localists” who express nothing but disdain for the Communist Party and its leaders notwithstanding, most of Hong Kong’s 7.4 million people are growing weary of the polarized politics of the city. They have looked on in alarm as Legco became a rhetorical war zone that over the last two years has seen six pro-democracy lawmakers ousted from office for turning their oath-taking rites into anti-Beijing diatribes, while others have been banned from running for office altogether because of their support for self-determination or independence for the city.

Meanwhile, aggressive opposition filibustering of virtually any government initiative, good or bad, has become the norm in the council.

Sensing the need for rapprochement, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor last month chose to attend the 23rd anniversary dinner for the Democratic Party, Hong Kong’s oldest pro-democracy party, and even donated HK$30,000 (US$3,800) to this bastion of the opposition out of her own pocket – later making a show of her act of generosity on her official Instagram account with photos of the event under the hashtag “major reconciliation.”

By contrast her predecessor, Leung Chun-ying, religiously eschewed the pan-democrats during his five combative years in office, routinely arousing their ire and contempt.

Lam’s gesture, however, was not exactly a success. Yes, the party accepted her donation, but not without drawing fire from more radical pan-democratic groups for jumping into bed with a government they see as in thrall to Beijing; pro-establishment politicians, including Ip, piled on, criticizing Lam for “buying goodwill” from the opposition and setting a bad precedent that will encourage other political parties to solicit donations from the chief executive’s office.

Even though Lam’s attempt at reconciliation did not live up to the hype of her Instagram post, it nevertheless further revealed a government strategy of making nice with moderate pan-democrats while isolating and cracking down on Tai and others seen as too extreme in their views.

Protected by the Basic Law

This perceived group of extremists includes localists such as Sixtus Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching, who were among the six legislators disqualified for their anti-Beijing oath-taking antics, and three student leaders of the Occupy movement – Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Nathan Law Kwun-chung and Alex Chow Yong-kang – who were given jail sentences of six to eight months last year for their part in storming the forecourt of government headquarters in Sept. 2014, which kicked off the 79-day occupation.

Along with two other Occupy co-founders – Chan Kin-man, an associate professor of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming – Tai also faces charges and possible prison time for his part in organizing the movement.

On top of that, central authorities in Beijing would clearly like to see Tai jailed for sedition for the statements he made in Taiwan as well, but that can’t happen, despite the entreaties of the People’s Daily, as long as free speech in Hong Kong is still protected by the Basic Law.

While it’s true that the city’s Crimes Ordinance covers the offense of sedition, Tai was speaking at an academic forum of a hypothetical future in which a “democratic China” would allow Hong Kong to become an independent city-state. At present, no judge in Hong Kong could justify characterizing this act of speculation as sedition.

A tough new anti-subversion law could change that, however. And, thanks to the ouster of the six pan-democratic lawmakers involved in the oath-taking controversy, pro-Beijing forces now control Legco and could make such a law happen sooner rather than later.

But even if these forces failed to muster the necessary votes in Legco to please their overlords in Beijing, don’t put it past the newly emboldened Xi-led central government to simply insert its own draconian national security law, passed in 2015, into the Annex of the Basic Law as an amendment. That’s easily done.

Either way, speaking out against the Chinese leadership in Hong Kong may soon be a criminal offense.

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