Authorities in recent days have tightened their grip on Hong Kong's legislature, curtailed the city's constitutional right to freedom of assembly and a free media, and cracked down on high-profile activists who have campaigned for full democracy for the former British colony.
In the quest to neutralize opposition, Beijing's allies in Hong Kong's legislature forcibly seized control Monday of a committee that determines what bills are brought before lawmakers. That move clears their path to push through laws sought by Beijing, starting with a bill that would make it a criminal offense to disrespect China's national anthem.
On Tuesday, Hong Kong authorities extended pandemic-related rules limiting public gatherings to effectively ban, for the first time, a June 4 vigil marking the anniversary of China's massacre of student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The vigil normally draws huge crowds and has been held in Hong Kong for three decades. Organizers had said they could easily implement distancing rules consistent with regulations, but to no avail; they have now urged Hong Kong residents to light candles wherever they are that evening to honor the dead.
The same day, public broadcaster RTHK said it would suspend a long-running satirical show after authorities ruled that an episode had "denigrated and insulted" the police force.
Western officials are growing increasingly alarmed at the rapid deterioration of the financial center's political freedoms, which China pledged to preserve until 2047. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned China this week over threats to "interfere with the work of American journalists in Hong Kong."
"It is obvious that Beijing has decided that they have no more patience for Hong Kong, that enough is enough," said Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker whose colleagues were dragged from the legislature by security guards when they challenged the pro-Beijing camp's takeover of the committee.
“We are now at the end of Hong Kong as we know. [Beijing is] telling Hong Kong people that it can do anything it wants, at whatever cost, and that it couldn’t care less about the consequences.”
Hong Kong’s government has said it continues to uphold the Basic Law, the city’s de facto constitution, along with freedom of assembly and press freedom. The chairman of the legislature, Andrew Leung, said that its secretariat has “all along been upholding the principle of political neutrality” and that to suggest otherwise is “grossly unjust and unfair.”
The developments reflect extreme political sensitivities in China at this time amid intensifying rivalry with the United States. The meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC) — the biggest event on China’s political calendar — will take place in Beijing this week, and Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam is to participate.
A Hong Kong delegate to the NPC has proposed that Beijing implement a package of sedition laws known as Article 23 by issuing a formal reinterpretation of Hong Kong laws, rather than attempting to pass it through the territory’s legislature.
An earlier attempt to introduce the measures in 2003 triggered massive protests in Hong Kong that led to their eventual withdrawal and the resignation of several government officials.
Another Hong Kong member of the NPC’s Standing Committee, Beijing loyalist Tam Yiu-chung, said in an interview with the state-run Global Times tabloid that the Chinese government should help Hong Kong “push forward Chinese history and culture education among young people.”
Chinese state media has frequently taken aim at Hong Kong’s schools, which it has characterized as breeding grounds for radicals and hotbeds of protest. The trigger this week was a question on a middle school test that asked students to argue whether Japan did “more good than harm to China” between 1900 and 1945. Lam said she would consider asking the exam authority to scrap the question.
In the near term, pro-Beijing lawmakers, having seized control of the legislative agenda, plan to push forward a bill that would criminalize mockery of the Chinese anthem, “March of the Volunteers.” If it is passed, anyone found guilty — such as Hong Kong soccer fans, who routinely boo the Chinese anthem at matches — could face a fine of up to $6,450 and three years in prison.
Political analysts say that in their determination to stamp out dissent, authorities are re-creating the conditions that sparked an explosion of unrest last June that continued for months. Lam and her government had proposed a now-shelved bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China — a step many viewed as an erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy. Escalating protests ensued that ruptured the relationship between Hong Kong residents and the police force and led to more than 8,000 arrests.
Key anniversaries of this movement fall next month, further setting the stage for fresh confrontation.
“What are they trying to achieve between this sheer oppression and cowering people into submission?” asked Antony Dapiran, author of two books on Hong Kong’s protest culture. “If there’s any lesson from last year, it is that it doesn’t work on this population.”
Among those charged over their involvement in protests are 15 pro-democracy figures. They include Martin Lee, a lawyer who helped draft Hong Kong’s mini-
constitution before the city’s 1997 handover from Britain to China, and media tycoon Jimmy Lai.
As the activists appeared in court this week ahead of trial, hundreds of supporters gathered outside, along with a smaller pro-Beijing group calling them “traitors.”
Among the supporters was David Cheung, 71, who was carrying a sign that read: “Carrie Lam has ruined Hong Kong. We will struggle until we are dead.”
“I am not afraid. I will do whatever it takes and try my best to fight for my home,” Cheung said. “The Chinese Communist Party needs to learn that the more they suppress us, the more insistent we are, the more we will fight back.”
Tiffany Liang contributed to this report.