Why Beijing feels compelled to destroy Hong Kong’s freedom
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Why Beijing feels compelled to destroy Hong Kong’s freedom

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald. 

The Chinese Communist Party has been steadily chipping away at Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy over the past decade. On Friday, it put down the chisel and swung with an axe.

By unilaterally deciding to impose draconian national security legislation on Hong Kong, China’s rubber-stamp parliament dealt a severe blow to the city.

At first glance, it looks like a needless act of self-harm, further alienating Hong Kongers and giving more ammunition to Beijing’s opponents in the West. But the party feels compelled to act because the freedom embraced by Hong Kongers represents a fundamental threat to its power.

Many outside observers wonder why Chinese leader Xi Jinping doesn’t just leave Hong Kong alone to enjoy the “high degree of autonomy” and civil liberties that Beijing promised it for 50 years after the UK handed it over in 1997. Without the incessant pressure of the past decade, there would be no strident opposition movement for Beijing to crush.

However, that view overlooks the fundamental clash of values that is driving the party’s actions. Beijing’s apparatchiks say they have been forced to bring in the new legislation because Hong Kong has become an “imminent threat” to China’s national security. It sounds hyperbolic but it reflects an uncomfortable truth. The liberal democratic values that many Hong Kongers uphold – and are theoretically guaranteed in the city’s mini-constitution – are an inexorable threat to China’s repressive Marxist-Leninist political system.

The strong sense of separate identity felt by many Hong Kongers directly undermines Xi’s claim to be uniting and rejuvenating all the Chinese people. And the fact that Hong Kong’s success has been predicated on its British-based legal system and its international way of life undercuts Beijing’s efforts to show the world that its style of governance is superior. This is the subversion, separatism and foreign interference that Beijing is trying to outlaw with its national security legislation for Hong Kong.

The proposed measures are a grave threat to the city’s democracy movement, which is already reeling from the arrest of thousands of protesters since last year’s rolling demonstrations. The new national security offences are likely to become catch-all excuses for persecuting government critics, as is the case in mainland China.

But it gets worse. Beijing also plans to establish offices for its all-powerful secret police in Hong Kong. Its operatives have already become more brazen in Hong Kong, abducting and rendering to mainland China those who upset the authorities, from booksellers to a billionaire. The new legislation would enable them to act openly and with impunity.

The problem is not just the letter of the law but the manner of its implementation. Beijing has bypassed Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, ruling by diktat instead and giving the lie to the claim that the city enjoys any meaningful autonomy.

The party never intended to allow Hong Kong to become a thriving democratic and free city. It was forced to compromise at a time when it was much weaker and more reliant on Hong Kong’s economic and technological prowess. But, as China has become much stronger, Beijing feels empowered to act against the threats it faces in Hong Kong.

The party is not acting out of malignancy but a desire for survival. How can it allow human rights and democratic elections for the 7 million residents of Hong Kong while denying them to the other 1.4 billion people in China? How can it sustain its image of infallibility if a free press and independent NGOs are exposing its flaws from within one of its own cities?

Australia and other sovereign democracies can, to some extent, manage their level of engagement with China to reduce the intensity at which our political systems collide. Hong Kongers don’t have that choice.

But, over the past few years, Hong Kongers have shown that Beijing cannot easily win this political struggle despite the profound power asymmetry between the two sides. The fact that Beijing has been driven to unilaterally impose national security legislation is a testament to activists’ successful efforts to stop the Hong Kong government implementing such a law.

The greatest irony, and the greatest cause for hope, is that while Beijing feels compelled to destroy Hong Kong’s freedom, its clampdown has made the city’s democracy movement more united and determined than ever. As the party was fond of saying during the Cold War, “wherever there is oppression, there is resistance”.

Ben Bland is a research fellow at the Lowy Institute and the author of Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow.

Areas of expertise: Southeast Asian politics and foreign policy; South China Sea; regional economic trends; China-ASEAN relations; Indonesia; Malaysia; Vietnam; Hong Kong