Crossing the Red Line: Behind China’s Takeover of Hong Kong



Hong Kong’s march towards an authoritarian future started with a single phrase in a dry coverage paper. Beijing, the doc declared, would wield “complete jurisdiction” over the territory.

The paper, printed in June 2014, signaled the Chinese language chief Xi Jinping’s dedication to tame political defiance within the former British colony, which had saved its personal legal guidelines and freedoms. However the phrases had been dismissed by many as intimidating swagger that the town’s strong authorized system and democratic opposition might face down.

Hong Kong now is aware of Mr. Xi’s ambitions with a surprised readability. The paper marked the opening of a contest for management within the metropolis, culminating within the sweeping nationwide safety regulation that few noticed coming.

Since that regulation took pressure one yr in the past, Beijing has unleashed a stampede of actions to convey Hong Kong into political lock step with the Chinese language Communist Get together: arresting activists, seizing property, firing authorities employees, detaining newspaper editors and rewriting college curriculums.

Whereas the clampdown appeared to reach with startling velocity, it was the fruits of yearslong efforts in Beijing. Interviews with insiders and advisers, in addition to speeches, coverage papers and state-funded research, reveal Chinese language officers’ rising alarm over protests in Hong Kong; their impatience with wavering among the many metropolis’s pro-Beijing ruling elite; and their rising conviction that Hong Kong had change into a haven for Western-backed subversion.

Within the years following the white paper’s launch, Beijing laid the groundwork for a safety counteroffensive. Officers attacked the idea that Hong Kong’s autonomy was set in stone underneath the framework negotiated with Britain close to the top of colonial rule. They pushed again in opposition to calls for for democratic rights, whereas influential advisers audaciously proposed that Beijing might impose a safety regulation if Hong Kong legislators did not act.

There have been clues to point that positions in Beijing had been hardening. It was solely the ultimate push, within the months earlier than the safety regulation got here down, that was muffled in near-total secrecy.

These indicators, usually conveyed with the Communist Get together’s regular calculated opacity, failed to chop by means of the political tumult in Hong Kong. Town’s opposition had envisioned grinding, shifting political battles in opposition to Chinese language authorities encroachment over a long time, not a lightning battle. Given the chance of a worldwide backlash, and the territory’s important monetary function, many assumed that Mr. Xi would transfer cautiously. Even Beijing’s closest loyalists in Hong Kong underestimated how far he was finally keen to go.

China’s offensive has dramatically accelerated its absorption of Hong Kong, portending deeper adjustments that might finish the town’s standing as Asia’s cosmopolitan capital.

“The entire course of developed or developed steadily, till a pair years in the past, then it sped up in a short time,” stated Lau Siu-kai, a Hong Kong scholar who advises Beijing on coverage. “The issue is that the nationwide safety regulation took place very all of the sudden and many individuals had been caught abruptly, together with the so referred to as pro-Beijing folks in Hong Kong.”

Mr. Xi got here to energy in 2012 amid expectations in Hong Kong that he is likely to be a practical overseer, content material to depend on the politicians and tycoons who had lengthy served as Beijing’s surrogates.

His father had been a liberalizing chief in neighboring Guangdong Province, and Mr. Xi at first cultivated a comparatively gentle picture. He instructed Leung Chun-ying, then Hong Kong’s prime official, that China’s strategy to the territory “won’t change.”

However as he settled into energy, Mr. Xi revealed an iron-fisted ideological agenda. In mainland China, he stifled dissent and denounced concepts like judicial independence and civil society — values that to many outlined Hong Kong.

The 2014 coverage paper signaled Mr. Xi’s rejection of the concept that legal guidelines and treaties insulated Hong Kong from Chinese language state energy. Many in Hong Kong had lengthy apprehensive that the town’s autonomy was brittle, however earlier Chinese language leaders had most well-liked to train affect not directly and covertly.

The paper’s new phrase, “complete jurisdiction,” advised that Beijing now not noticed a authorized “firewall” encasing Hong Kong, stated Michael C. Davis, a former professor of regulation on the College of Hong Kong and writer of “Making Hong Kong China.”

Whereas the time period ignited protest by attorneys in Hong Kong, many thought of it an intimidating political assertion with out authorized basis, one that might goad the opposition somewhat than deter it.

“This avowed posture of ‘crushing a crab to demise with a boulder’ is a silly transfer,” Chan Kin-man, a tutorial on the forefront of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy marketing campaign, stated on the time. “It would solely immediate an excellent larger social response.”

Beijing quickly made clear that it was critical about setting new guidelines for Hong Kong.

Mr. Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, had raised the chance of fulfilling China’s repeatedly delayed promise to let the general public instantly elect the chief govt, Hong Kong’s prime official. In August 2014, the Chinese language authorities revealed a slender proposal to permit a direct vote beginning in 2017, however solely from amongst a handful of candidates permitted by Beijing.

Tens of hundreds of individuals responded by occupying main streets for 2 and a half months. Chinese language leaders started to fret that Hong Kong had change into an ideological abscess that would wish lancing.

Chinese language media and pro-Beijing politicians started calling the protests a “colour revolution,” the social gathering’s time period for Western-sponsored rebellion. Chinese language officers intensified requires the territory to move safety laws, a dedication demanded by the Primary Legislation, Beijing’s framework of guidelines that give Hong Kong its particular standing.

The federal government started dismissing as a relic the joint declaration with Britain that laid out circumstances for Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997. A Chinese language diplomat in London stated the declaration was “now void,” in line with a British lawmaker.

However Mr. Xi was not but able to make dramatic incursions into Hong Kong. His coverage shifted between warnings and reassuring financial gestures, lulling some into considering that the social gathering’s political chew wouldn’t match its rhetorical bark.

Mr. Xi’s maintain over China’s personal safety equipment was incomplete. Beijing additionally wished to maintain tensions with america in examine and provides Hong Kong time to restore its economic system after the demonstrations, stated Tian Feilong, an affiliate professor of regulation at Beihang College in Beijing who turned a supporter of a more durable strategy to protesters.

Given these issues, he stated, Chinese language leaders “didn’t instantly set to work on fixing the nationwide safety difficulty.”

Curbing opposition in Hong Kong was extra sophisticated than in different tense areas on China’s periphery, like Tibet and Xinjiang.

Hong Kong had its personal British-derived authorized system, a preferred and well-organized democratic opposition and much higher international financial publicity. Bringing out Chinese language troops to quell protests might spook monetary markets.

Professional-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong had been reluctant to push for nationwide safety laws. A earlier try had failed in 2003 after an enormous protest.

“No person was keen to seize this sizzl ing potato,” Professor Tian stated. “Nobody, together with the Western international locations, really believed that Hong Kong regionally had the flexibility to finish this laws.”


After 2014, Mr. Xi’s requires resurgent social gathering energy emboldened coverage advisers to search for new methods to interrupt the deadlock over Hong Kong. Hawkish voices started advancing arguments that China might impose a safety regulation on the town by constitutional fiat.

“Some folks suppose that the central authorities can’t do something,” Mo Jihong, a regulation professor on the Chinese language Academy of Social Sciences, a state suppose tank, stated at a 2016 assembly about safety laws for Hong Kong. “The central authorities has the ability to cope with these issues.”

Some Chinese language teachers printed research arguing that the mainland’s personal nationwide safety regulation might be prolonged to Hong Kong. Others proposed that China move a regulation tailored for Hong Kong, bypassing political obstacles within the metropolis.

It was broadly thought in Hong Kong that Mr. Xi wouldn’t go that far. When China adopted its personal safety regulation in 2015, the highest safety official in Hong Kong, Lai Tung-kwok, stated the accountability to enact legal guidelines within the metropolis in opposition to crimes like treason and subversion could be “fulfilled by native laws.” The administration, he stated, “has no plan to enact” such legal guidelines. Insiders shook their heads at the concept that Beijing might impose one.

“I had by no means imagined that you might use this strategy,” Tam Yiu-Chung, the only Hong Kong member of the highest committee of China’s legislature, stated in a current interview. “I’d heard about it, however there have been so many difficulties with it.”

By July 2017, when Hong Kong’s elite gathered to have a good time the 20th anniversary of the territory’s return to Chinese language sovereignty, Mr. Xi was prepared to boost the stakes.

It was his first go to to Hong Kong as China’s prime chief. Hours earlier than tens of hundreds kicked off an annual protest for higher democratic rights, Mr. Xi inserted a steely warning into his celebratory speech.

Threats to “nationwide sovereignty and safety,” or challenges to the central authorities’s authority in Hong Kong, “would cross a purple line and can by no means be permitted,” Mr. Xi stated.

In China’s top-down system, Mr. Xi’s phrases galvanized policymakers to search for new methods to defend that “purple line.”

One influential adviser, Chen Duanhong, a professor of regulation at Peking College, submitted a number of inside experiences about Hong Kong to Communist Get together headquarters, together with one about adopting safety laws. Round that very same time, he wrote publicly that in a dire disaster, Chinese language leaders might “take all mandatory measures” to defend sovereignty, casting apart the fetters of lesser legal guidelines.

“The need of the state should always reply to its atmosphere of survival,” he wrote, “after which take decisive measures at essential moments.”

For Beijing, the essential second appeared to reach on the evening of July 21, 2019. A whole bunch of protesters besieged the Central Liaison Workplace, China’s major arm in Hong Kong, and splattered black ink on the red-and-gold Chinese language nationwide emblem over the doorway.

The demonstrations had begun in June as a largely peaceable outcry in opposition to a invoice that might have allowed extraditions to mainland China. Inside weeks they’d change into a huge motion, venting years of pent-up discontent over Beijing’s encroachments. Some radical protesters started calling for independence.

For a lot of Hong Kongers, resistance was mandatory even when victory was unlikely. “We had thought it will be a sluggish strangling,” stated Jackie Chen, a social employee who supported pro-democracy protests in 2019. “We had been fascinated with tips on how to sluggish their strangling, cease it, after which flip for the higher.”

To Beijing, the nationwide emblem’s defacement confirmed that the protests had change into an assault on its very declare to Hong Kong.

Official media, mute on the protests for weeks, erupted. Folks’s Each day, the Communist Get together’s important paper, stated the incident “overtly challenged the central authorities’s authority” and “crossed a purple line,” echoing Mr. Xi’s warning two years earlier.

“Sufficient is sufficient,” Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing legislator in Hong Kong, stated in a current interview, recalling the authorities’ response to the vandalism.

“And the slogan of Hong Kong independence,” she added. “That’s gone too far.”

The clearest signal of how Beijing would reply got here in October 2019. State tv confirmed a whole lot of prime officers at a closed-door assembly, elevating their fingers to endorse a transfer to tighten regulation and order throughout China. The plan, printed days later, proposed a “authorized system and enforcement mechanism for nationwide safety” in Hong Kong.

That warning was broadly misconstrued. Whereas many Hong Kongers figured that Beijing would transfer to finish the protests, most thought the steps could be acquainted. Some anticipated contemporary strain on native lawmakers to enact safety legal guidelines.

On the time, Ms. Ip, the lawmaker, doubted that Chief Govt Carrie Lam might make a lot progress on a safety regulation. “It’s not one thing that may occur anytime quickly,” she stated in November 2019.

Notably absent was any discuss of safety laws imposed instantly by Beijing. The mainland students’ proposals had largely light from view. Prime loyalists and authorities advisers in Hong Kong weren’t briefed on the choice, which could have risked inflaming the protests.

It had “not been mentioned within the media,” stated Albert Chen, a regulation professor on the College of Hong Kong who sits on a authorized advisory committee to Beijing. “Not even mainland Chinese language students talked about this risk at the moment.”

However China’s leaders had already reached past the workplaces that often handled Hong Kong — their credibility wounded by the months of protest — and quietly recruited specialists to arrange for the safety intervention, stated two individuals who had been instructed concerning the deliberations by individuals. Prime Communist Get together companies steered the preparations, stated each folks, who spoke on the situation of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the matter.

Mr. Xi would formally lengthen China’s formidable safety equipment to Hong Kong, creating an company there that answered on to the social gathering.

Not even probably the most draconian public proposals for safety laws had envisioned this step.

“No person of their wildest creativeness would have thought there could be a central company in Hong Kong,” stated Fu Hualing, the dean of the College of Hong Kong regulation college.

The announcement surprised the town. Forward of China’s annual legislative assembly, a spokesman stated at a late-night information convention on Could 21 that lawmakers would evaluate a plan to impose a nationwide safety regulation on Hong Kong.

The regulation was shortly handed on June 30, laying out 4 offenses — separatism, subversion, terrorism and collusion with international powers — with penalties as much as life imprisonment. It demanded oversight of faculties and media.

And it created the brand new Chinese language safety company in Hong Kong, just about proof against authorized challenges. It was empowered to research circumstances and produce defendants to trial on the mainland, the place party-controlled courts hardly ever reject prosecutors’ expenses.

Metropolis officers initially stated the safety regulation could be utilized with scrupulous precision; as a substitute, it unleashed a rolling marketing campaign that has left few corners of society untouched.

The Hong Kong authorities have arrested greater than 110 folks in nationwide safety investigations over the previous yr, charging 64, together with many of the metropolis’s best-known pro-democracy activists.

The Chinese language safety company itself has stayed largely out of view. Its most seen footprint has been its non permanent headquarters on the 33-story Metropark Lodge Causeway Bay, overlooking Victoria Park, as soon as the positioning of a few of Hong Kong’s largest protests.

But it surely has often damaged its silence, reminding residents that it looms behind the scenes.

It has pointedly praised the arrests of high-profile figures, together with opposition politicians and prime editors of Apple Each day, a brash pro-democracy tabloid ensnared by the regulation and compelled to shut final week. It has scrutinized museums for probably subversive art work, in line with a neighborhood official. It has extolled the safety regulation as a treatment for Hong Kong’s political turbulence.

“I thank the Hong Kong folks,” the company’s chief, Zheng Yanxiong, stated in a uncommon public speech on Nationwide Safety Schooling Day, in April.

“They’ve gone by means of a really pure, affordable course of from unfamiliarity, guessing and wait-and-see concerning the Hong Kong Nationwide Safety Legislation,” he stated, “to acceptance, welcoming and help.”

Per week later, the Hong Kong authorities introduced that China’s safety company would construct a everlasting headquarters on the town’s waterfront, occupying a web site concerning the dimension of two soccer fields.

Keith Bradsher contributed reporting.


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