A file photo shows a protester handing out yellow ribbons against the controversial Article 23 law during a rally in July 2003. Photo: AFP

Beijing has handed down a decree to Hong Kong’s leader to revive the city’s efforts to put into law a controversial clause in its mini-constitution concerning China’s national security, with a rumored deadline of mid-2020, according to media reports.

News started to swirl on Thursday that members of the Communist Party of China’s top caucus had signaled a clear mandate to Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam that Article 23 of the city’s Basic Law – a clause in the constitutional document pertaining to China’s national security whose ratification has been deferred for decades – must become formal law by the end of her term in 2022.

Lam was in Beijing attending the opening of China’s annual parliamentary session this week. Citing sources privy to her meetings with top CPC cadres including Vice-Premier Han Zheng, Hong Kong’s Now TV reported on Thursday that the city’s leader had been told to get to grips with the delayed legislation, and that shoving a related bill through the city’s legislature for early implementation of Article 23 would be Beijing’s prerequisite for granting her a second term.

The Basic Law has been Hong Kong’s constitutional document since the 1997 handover. Photo: Xinhua

This is seen by many as a sign of Beijing’s renewed imperative to pressure Hong Kong to criminalize words and deeds deemed as contrary to party agendas or detrimental to the safety of the Communist republic. A previous bid in 2003 flopped after it galvanized half a million Hongkongers to take to the streets to protest against Article 23, merely six years after the former British colony’s return to China in 1997.

Beijing under the then-president Hu Jintao was forced to back down amid the groundswell of opposition and allowed the Hong Kong government to withdraw the legislation, in one of the biggest debacles in China’s rule of the city after 1997.

Fast-forward to 2019, and Hong Kong is nearing the halfway point of Beijing’s pledge of no changes for 50 years under the “one country, two systems” framework, which will expire in 2047. Beijing is losing patience with the stalled national-security legislation, against the backdrop of the city’s pan-democratic bloc refusing to buckle down under Beijing’s authority, as well as the defiant calls from some political outfits, albeit on the periphery of society, for Hong Kong to part ways with China.

Hong Kong’s democratic movement is still at a nadir after the failed mass protests demanding universal suffrage in 2014. Beijing thus sees a window of opportunity to enact Article 23, now that Hongkongers have not responded strongly to the central government’s slew of moves to curtail freedom and muzzle dissidents, from disqualifying popularly elected pro-democracy and pro-independence lawmakers to banning a fringe political party that pushed for Hong Kong independence.

A pedestrian walks under lines of Chinese and Hong Kong flags marking the 20th anniversary of the city’s return from Britain to China in July 2017. Photo: AFP
Protesters occupy Hong Kong’s financial district in demand of genuine universal suffrage in 2014. Photo: Asia Times
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Xinhua

Enacting the national-security clause once and for all while the city’s democratic movement is in its dormancy is believed to be the task Beijing has given Carrie Lam, who has fared relatively well in the popularity stakes since taking office in 2017.

President Xi Jinping lauded Lam’s loyalty and resolve not to shy away from her duty in a meeting with the Hong Kong leader in December.

There are also suggestions that a bill must be tabled to the current term Legislative Council, with the next election due in July 2020. The bill could be rubber-stamped in a chamber dominated by pro-Beijing lawmakers, after many critics of the central government were booted out.

The remaining pro-democracy lawmakers, however, have vowed to put up a fight and warned of the ramifications for human rights and the city’s standing as a global financial center if Article 23 is enacted.

Read more: Grand plan to pull HK, Macau closer to China

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