Many Hongkongers were blindsided by a new security law soon to be foisted upon the protest-riven city, with rising uncertainty over what its implementation will mean for the city’s autonomy and status.
The national security legislation was passed by 2,873 votes to 1, with 6 abstentions at the closing session of the National People’s Congress in Beijing on Thursday. The exact language of the contentious law has not yet been revealed, however.
Hong Kong’s people were kept in the dark until the bombshell was dropped last week, when NPC delegates congregated for their annual session. The legal groundwork for the move was apparently made more than half a year ago, according to reports.
Footage aired by state broadcaster China Central Television showed that there was a resounding round of applause from NPC delegates inside the Great Hall of the People upon the law’s passage.
Beijing has so far stared down condemnation from Hongkongers and the West, showing its resolve to rein in the increasingly restive territory.
Reports suggest that the city’s government and police had been notified in advance and have actively helped to work out contingencies.
Riot police swooped into action during the past week to preempt protests when the opposition scrambled to organize anti-security law rallies. Protesters were waylaid and dispersed as police forestalled attacks and vandalism to prevent the city from slipping into new pandemonium.
Beijing appears bent on not allowing anarchy to return to the city, as happened during last year’s months-long protests against a now-withdrawn China extradition bill.
Hong Kong’s Ming Pao daily and the Lianhe Zaobao in Singapore quoted insiders in Zhongnanhai as saying that before asserting its prerogatives Beijing had been primed for a backlash from the city residents and the West.
It had apparently devised a plan to marshal Chinese capital into Hong Kong to shore up falling markets and roll out countervailing measures against possible US sanctions.
“The plan covers every point and every aspect, and other than launching a diplomatic and propaganda campaign to refute the US, the plan also includes ways to assuage the anxiety of Hongkongers and international investors in the Asian financial hub,” said an informed source.
Chinese diplomats posted abroad, especially in Western and Asian countries as well as to international bodies, have also moved in lockstep with Beijing to repudiate criticism and put a positive spin on the legislation.
The office of China’s foreign ministry in Hong Kong has convened briefings for foreign envoys and business leaders to assure them that Beijing would continue to respect and protect their expats and their interests in the city, as long as they play by the new rules.
Xinhua and China News Service also reported that when the NPC’s standing committee starts to set out the specific clauses of the law, “stakeholders in Hong Kong” will be consulted.
Tam Yiu-chung, a pro-Beijing politician and member of the standing committee, said he would set up a platform to gauge and solicit public opinion about the law.
That will still put the onus on Hong Kong’s police and local judges to enforce the law and try related cases. This may or may not bring peace of mind to Hongkongers considering Beijing has made it clear it would dispatch agents to the city to run a base “when the need arises,” according to a preliminary excerpt of the law.
Another source said the new law and Chinese agents would only deter and go after “a small bunch of holdouts and radicals bent on fomenting more turmoil” and that the rest of the society should not read too much into or be frightened by the move.
“The Chinese agents, if they are really sent in, will be just like the troops of the local garrison of the Chinese military who are nowhere to be seen on Hong Kong’s streets. These state agents will lie very low,” said the source.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang also reiterated at a press conference on Thursday that Beijing would stick to “one country, two systems” as a “fundamental state policy.”
Huang Qifan, a deputy chair of the NPC’s financial and economic affairs committee, told reporters that Hong Kong still matters a great deal to the Chinese economy as a bridgehead for international capital flows into China. In the past decade, more than two-thirds of China’s annual foreign direct investment (FDI) flowed through Hong Kong.
“One recent example is that when Tesla became the first foreign automaker to have set up a wholly-owned subsidiary in China, Elon Musk used Hong Kong to transfer the money to construct a huge plant in Shanghai,” said Huang, referring to the technology entrepreneur.
“Other than that, Hong Kong is also irreplaceable as a financial and trade center of the capitalist world sitting right on China’s doorstep, and keeping its standing intact is beneficial to China as it will never have a capitalist system of its own,” he said.
At the same time, some now wonder if US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement on Thursday saying that Washington would no longer acknowledge Hong Kong’s autonomy and may revoke its special trade status was a diplomatic bluff.
In a statement slamming the US State Department, Hong Kong’s government stressed that in the past decade the US trade surplus with Hong Kong was the biggest among all of its trading partners, with a merchandise trade surplus totaling US$297 billion from 2009 to 2018.
“In 2019, that surplus came down from $31.4 billion in the preceding year to US$26.4 billion as a result of the US-China trade tensions. Should any sanctions be contemplated in other areas like services and investment, the interests of the 1,300 US corporations based in Hong Kong might further be affected,” said the government.