China’s stealthy bid to ex­pand over­sight

Pro­posed na­tional se­cu­rity law grants Bei­jing greater pow­ers to crack down on dis­sent in Hong Kong.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Alice Su

SHANG­HAI — Those who watched Hong Kong’s protests es­ca­late last year won­dered week af­ter week, as tear gas filled the streets and stu­dents screamed in the night, clash­ing with riot po­lice, when the crack­down would come.

Demon­stra­tors broke into the city’s leg­isla­tive build­ing, scrawl­ing “It was you who taught me peace­ful marches are use­less.” They tram­pled on im­ages of Com­mu­nist Party leader Xi Jin­ping’s

face and burned Chi­nese flags. They were be­sieged by po­lice on a univer­sity cam­pus for two weeks, their par­ents fear­ing a mas­sacre.

But when the crack­down came Thurs­day, it did not erupt on the streets but in a staid news con­fer­ence far away in the cen­tral govern­ment’s head­quar­ters in Bei­jing. The lat­est and per­haps most pow­er­ful move yet to en­croach on Hong Kong’s free­doms was de­liv­ered by a so­cially dis­tanced man on a blue screen talk­ing about Bei­jing’s plans to im­pose new na­tional se­cu­rity laws on the for­mer Bri­tish colony.

“Na­tional se­cu­rity is the bedrock un­der­pin­ning the sta­bil­ity of the coun­try,” said Zhang Ye­sui, a spokesman for China’s Na­tional Peo­ple’s Congress, at the open­ing of

its an­nual meet­ing. “Safe­guard­ing na­tional se­cu­rity serves the fun­da­men­tal in­ter­est of all Chi­nese, our Hong Kong com­pa­tri­ots in­cluded.”

The de­ci­sion sent shock waves through Hong Kong, where past calls for na­tional se­cu­rity leg­is­la­tion were shelved af­ter mass protests. Many fear that new laws will sup­press dis­si­dents and fur­ther jeop­ar­dize civil lib­er­ties, de­stroy­ing Hong Kong’s long­time sta­tus as a cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal refuge for those who would be per­se­cuted in main­land China.

Zhang said the Na­tional Peo­ple’s Congress, China’s rub­ber-stamp leg­is­la­ture, would ex­er­cise con­sti­tu­tional power to “es­tab­lish and im­prove” a le­gal frame­work for en­forc­ing na­tional se­cu­rity in Hong Kong.

The strat­egy could by­pass Hong Kong’s leg­is­la­ture by al­ter­ing a part of the ter­ri­tory’s quasi-con­sti­tu­tion with­out go­ing through usual law­mak­ing process. Such di­rect in­ter­ven­tion might com­pel the United States to de­clare as in­valid “one coun­try, two sys­tems,” the un­der­stand­ing that Hong Kong should re­tain its semi­au­tonomous sta­tus un­til 2047.

Such a prospect would fur­ther ag­gra­vate U.S.China ten­sions, al­ready at a break­ing point over the COVID-19 pan­demic, which the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion blames on Bei­jing. The two sides’ testy ex­changes over each other’s short­com­ings in han­dling the dis­ease have fu­eled talk of a new Cold War.

Zhang said China’s in­ten­tions in Hong Kong were “highly nec­es­sary” in light of “new cir­cum­stances,” al­lud­ing to more than six months of anti-govern­ment protests that rocked the spe­cial ad­min­is­tra­tive re­gion last year. Xi, China’s pres­i­dent, saw the up­ris­ing as a threat against the Com­mu­nist Party and a test of his abil­ity to rein in widen­ing dis­sent.

What be­gan as peace­ful re­sis­tance last year to a bill that would have al­lowed ex­tra­di­tion of sus­pected crim­i­nals to main­land China evolved into a city­wide move­ment against po­lice bru­tal­ity and Bei­jing’s in­flu­ence over the semi­au­tonomous ter­ri­tory. More than 7,000 peo­ple were ar­rested for in­volve­ment with the protests, in­clud­ing chil­dren as young as 11.

Bei­jing re­gards the protests as U.S.-fo­mented sep­a­ratism, a view made clear in a pro­pa­ganda film ti­tled “The Other Hong Kong” that state chan­nel CCTV re­leased Wed­nes­day night.

Omi­nous mu­sic served as the back­drop to im­ages of a burn­ing city, with black­clad pro­test­ers throw­ing Molo­tov cock­tails as po­lice hun­kered in de­fense.

The film re­peat­edly called pro­test­ers “vi­o­lent, ri­ot­ing crim­i­nals.” It ac­cused the U.S. govern­ment of fund­ing the demon­stra­tions through democ­racy ac­tivists and in­de­pen­dent me­dia own­ers in Hong Kong, and claimed that pro­test­ers were naive youth be­ing ma­nip­u­lated to desta­bi­lize China.

It is a view Bei­jing has pro­moted with great suc­cess at home — where there is lit­tle sup­port for Hong Kong’s protests — but failed to push abroad. The protests drew global at­ten­tion, chal­leng­ing the Com­mu­nist Party’s de­sired im­age of a wealthy na­tion of uni­fied, thank­ful peo­ple, and dis­rupt­ing the 70th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion of the Peo­ple’s Re­pub­lic.

Now, with the world pre­oc­cu­pied by the coro­n­avirus, Bei­jing is mov­ing to as­sert con­trol over Hong Kong ’s in­sti­tu­tions. Pro-Bei­jing law­mak­ers took over a com­mit­tee on Mon­day by force, af­ter se­cu­rity guards re­moved 15 op­po­si­tion leg­is­la­tors from the cham­ber.

Lo­cal broad­caster RTHK was forced on Tues­day to sus­pend a pro­gram af­ter it made jokes about the po­lice. In the courts, the cen­tral govern­ment’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Hong Kong re­cently as­serted their right to “su­per­vise” the law.

Schools have also been tar­geted. Bei­jing of­fi­cials are push­ing to re­place lib­eral stud­ies, which taught crit­i­cal think­ing and which they blame for en­cour­ag­ing stu­dents to protest, with “pa­tri­otic ed­u­ca­tion.”

Many Hong Kongers are look­ing to up­com­ing leg­isla­tive elec­tions in Septem­ber to express their will, as they did in an over­whelm­ing vic­tory for pro-demo­cratic can­di­dates dur­ing district-level elec­tions in Novem­ber. But their choices may be lim­ited. Hong Kong has be­gun ar­rest­ing op­po­si­tion law­mak­ers and ac­tivists who par­tic­i­pated in last year’s protests.

What’s left is the streets, where Hong Kong’s po­lice have been em­pow­ered to use force against pro­test­ers af­ter a govern­ment re­port in­ves­ti­gat­ing of­fi­cers’ con­duct in last year’s protests re­cently vin­di­cated the po­lice.

All five for­eign ex­perts hired to en­sure ob­jec­tiv­ity in the re­port re­signed in De­cem­ber over com­plaints of lack of in­de­pen­dence.

The re­port by the In­de­pen­dent Po­lice Com­plaints Coun­cil was widely crit­i­cized for fail­ing to hold of­fi­cers ac­count­able for in­ci­dents in­clud­ing the night in July when law en­force­ment stood by while “triad” gang mem­bers stormed a sub­way sta­tion, beat­ing pro­test­ers, jour­nal­ists and by­standers with metal rods.

The re­port said there was “room for im­prove­ment” for the po­lice, but de­scribed pro­test­ers’ be­hav­ior as “vi­o­lence and van­dal­ism verg­ing on ter­ror­ism.”

Hong Kong’s po­lice have also de­nied re­quests for gath­er­ings, cit­ing the need for so­cial dis­tanc­ing due to the coro­n­avirus. The city’s an­nual June 4 vigil, the only mass com­mem­o­ra­tion of the 1989 Tianan­men Square mas­sacre in Bei­jing, has been barred.

Protests have be­gun and are likely to es­ca­late.

This kind of di­rect law­mak­ing is “de­struc­tion” of Hong Kong’s Ba­sic Law, said Jo­hannes Chan, law pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Hong Kong, in an in­ter­view with lo­cal me­dia. “It’s in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to be­lieve that ‘one coun­try, two sys­tems’ can still ex­ist.”

Mar­cus Yam Los An­ge­les Times

PO­LICE ar­rest a Hong Kong pro­tester in 2019. China an­nounced plans to im­pose na­tional se­cu­rity laws.

Mar­cus Yam Los An­ge­les Times

IN HONG KONG, de­mon­tra­tors march to­ward the U.S. Con­sulate for a pro-democ­racy rally in Septem­ber. China re­gards protests in the ter­ri­tory as U.S.-fo­mented sep­a­ratism and said it plans to “es­tab­lish and im­prove” a le­gal frame­work for en­forc­ing na­tional se­cu­rity.

Andy Wong Pool Photo

DEL­E­GATES at the open­ing ses­sion of the Chi­nese Peo­ple’s Po­lit­i­cal Con­sul­ta­tive Con­fer­ence in Bei­jing.

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