This article first appeared in CNBC-TV18 on May 25, 2020 and can be accessed here.
Hong Kong has broken out into protests again. Last week, the National People’s Congress of the Chinese Communist Party began holding lianghui 两会 or the Two Sessions. This much-delayed annual meeting of Chinese policymakers announced that the National Security Law would extend to Hong Kong, in effect giving the law enforcement in the city sweeping powers to crush dissent. Over the last year, the protests in Hong Kong grew violent as the bottom-up movement to resist the extradition treaty to mainland China expanded in support. The Chinese government is keen to crack down on the violence — Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced that the law could be passed as soon as next week.
So why are the streets of Hong Kong filled with teargas again? Article 15 of the 2015 National Security Law provides one clue,
“The state shall adhere to the leadership of the Communist Party of China, maintain the socialist system with Chinese characteristics, develop socialist democratic politics, improve the socialist rule of law, reinforce the mechanism for checks and oversight of power, and protect the people's rights as the master of the country.
The state shall prevent, frustrate, and legally punish any conduct that betrays the country, splits the country, incites rebellion, subverts or incites the subversion of the people's democratic dictatorship; prevent, frustrate, and legally punish any conduct that compromises national security such as stealing and divulging state secrets; and prevent, frustrate, and legally punish any penetration, destruction, subversion, and secession activities of overseas forces.”
When it was passed, the national security law signaled the Chinese government’s will to effectively deal with security threats both domestically and in the international sphere. The vague wording of national security — a feature of most countries’ policies on the same — causes even more concern as it could do away with the civil and political liberties that Hong Kongers enjoy as part of the ‘One Country, Two Systems.'
The Chinese government has taken the step of reining in Hong Kong, not only as a face-saving exercise but because it does not tolerate questioning of the CCP’s sovereignty. Consider the last yearfor the Chinese government: the Sino-US trade war, the looming rates of unemployment, the pandemic which has only exacerbated the woes of the economy, some dissent after Li Wenliang’s death and the instability of Hong Kong. Against this backdrop, it is no wonder that the Chinese government is feeling the pressure not to allow any opportunities to tarnish its legitimacy.
There’s a longer strategic culture to this line of thinking — the concept of neiluan waihuan (internal chaos invites outside trouble), which stresses that external forces can easily exploit domestic problems within the country. After all, wasn’t this the reason for the fall of the Ming, Qing and Republican governments? This wariness towards external forces exploiting local grievances has dictated the government’s policy towards Tibet, Taiwan, and Xinjiang. It continues to explain the Chinese government’s rationale for first passing the national security law back in 2015 and its current reiteration.
The protests in Hong Kong trickled out with the COVID-19 pandemic, and panic over the contagion led to panic buying in the island city. Now, however, thousands of protestors are risking their health to turn up on the streets again. It is unlikely that the protests will be able to resist the might of the mainland. How this pans out is the real question. As countries around the world devote all their resources to dealing with containing the pandemic and ensuring that their economies bounce back from it, international attention is away from Hong Kong. The next couple of weeks will be crucial for the city, and people from all over the world can only watch from home.