BEIJING – The Communist Party of China has long pursued its Hong Kong agenda by working through loyalists among the city’s top officials, lawmakers and tycoons. That behind-the-scenes approach was a key feature in preserving considerable autonomy for the territory.
Now, as the party prepares to seize more power in Hong Kong after months of sometimes violent unrest last year, it has sidelined even its own allies in the city. The party’s strategy sends a clear message to Hong Kong: By overriding challenges to its authority, Beijing will not hesitate to upset the delicate political balance at the center of the city’s identity.
Party-appointed lawmakers in Beijing are expected to pass a general security law for Hong Kong on Tuesday. However, few of the city’s Beijing-backed establishments, even at the highest levels, seem to have seen a draft. Its main leader, Carrie Lam, and the secretary of justice, Teresa Cheng, have acknowledged that they know little about the law beyond what has been reported in the news.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Cheng said earlier this month.
Bernard Chan, a Hong Kong cabinet official and member of the Chinese legislature, said he had not even expected Beijing to act this spring. “I am really surprised, surprised at the moment,” he said in an interview.
The edge of Hong Kong’s elite is the latest sign that, in his quest for power, China’s top leader Xi Jinping is ready to challenge political norms set for decades, and will do so quickly and secretly. Mr. Xi’s decision to take over Beijing signals how deeply the months of protests in Hong Kong have disrupted his administration’s confidence in its carefully selected allies in the city.
“There was a mood among mainland officials that we needed a second installment from Hong Kong to China, and we are moving towards that,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University. “I don’t think Beijing trusts Hong Kong’s elites anymore.”
Even before Britain returned to Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, Beijing cultivated ties with tycoons who had fled Communism in China for the city and built great fortunes in commerce, banking, real estate, and industry. . The tycoons, along with trained public officials in Britain, then formed the establishment that Beijing commissioned to run the city along with an independent judicial system, the police, the academic system, and the capitalist model.
The elite has served as the eyes and ears of Beijing. They have defended the interests of the Communist Party by promoting patriotism and promoting unpopular laws, including one earlier this month that criminalized disrespect for the national anthem.
But the establishment has struggled to balance Beijing’s desire for control with residents’ demands to preserve the autonomy that has protected them from feared security services and the often harsh, opaque legal system.
When protests erupted last summer, the city leadership was responsible for trying to quell it, but Beijing did not give it the power to make large concessions, resulting in a standstill. The pro-Beijing camp now also sees the Communist Party’s new assertiveness as a sign of its impatience with the failure of the local establishment to pass national security laws on its own.
“They delegated that authority to us to do it and we failed, we failed 23 years. So they said, OK, we’ll get it back, “said Chan, the government’s top adviser.” So we can no longer say we didn’t have a chance. “
Beijing also increasingly acknowledges that the influence of its pro-business allies has fueled public anger at small pensions and expensive housing that have made Hong Kong one of the most unequal places in the world. Support for the pro-Beijing camp has fallen to record lows: they suffered a resounding defeat in the local district elections in November and could see potentially significant losses in the September legislative elections.
The party’s drive for more open control calls into question the role of Hong Kong’s elite in the months and years ahead. Establishment figures are now in the awkward position of having to defend a law they haven’t seen in detail, amid mounting pressure from Beijing to demonstrate loyalty.
“I am also disappointed that we cannot see the bill,” Elsie Leung, a staunch Beijing ally and former justice secretary, told reporters in a rare admission. However, he said he believed that Beijing had heard different views on the law.
For many in Hong Kong, such guarantees have been largely hollow. City residents are used to very public, sometimes noisy, discussions of new laws by the city legislature. Faced with the secrecy of Beijing, Hong Kong democracy activists, academics and former chief magistrates have asked: Who could solve the cases? Would Hong Kong residents be extradited to the mainland? Would the law be used retroactively to prosecute protesters?
Ms. Lam, the city’s leader, has tried to allay public concerns, saying this week that Beijing pledged to preserve the city’s civil liberties. But she acknowledged not having seen the details of the legislation.
Democracy legislator Tanya Chan said Beijing had undermined the credibility of the city government. “How can we believe you?” she said in an interview.
“The entire law will be imposed on Hong Kong, but the government is willing to be a propaganda machine without having seen the clauses,” Chan said. “Not only did they not help citizens fight for the right to know, but they were also blinded.”
Even without publishing a draft of the law, China made it clear last week that its passage would give Beijing expansive powers in the city. It would allow mainland security agencies to establish operations in Hong Kong and for Beijing to exercise legal jurisdiction over some cases. The law requires a continental security official to be an adviser to Ms. Lam and tighter controls on city schools, which have been hotbeds of sometimes violent activism.
The law would make it a crime to collude with foreigners, press for independence, subvert the state, or jeopardize party rule. Beijing has yet to reveal how these crimes will be defined, but many pro-democracy advocates and activists fear they will be widely applied to silence dissent and shut down opposition.
The Chinese government crafted the national security plan this spring with such secrecy to prevent tycoons and city professionals from pressing against it.
“Beijing this time has kept its secret very well,” said Lau Siu-kai, a former senior Hong Kong government official who now advises Beijing on the territory’s policies. These days, he added, “the military and national security people are more influential in Hong Kong affairs.”
In addition to marginalizing party allies in Hong Kong, Mr. Xi also eliminated and replaced several of Beijing’s oldest officials dealing with territory affairs, including Sun Lijun, deputy minister of public security.
Until January, the head of Beijing’s powerful Liaison Office in Hong Kong was Wang Zhimin, who was part of the Hong Kong cocktail circuit, flirting with bankers, captains of industry and top officials. Mr. Wang is said to have been criticized in Beijing for not anticipating the popular anger that fueled the Hong Kong protests.
He was replaced by Luo Huining, a central China official who spent much of his career as a tough security agent in northwest China. Unlike Mr. Wang, Mr. Luo does not speak Cantonese, makes few public appearances in Hong Kong, and often works from a backup office in Beijing, not Hong Kong. Mr. Xi also installed a trusted assistant as the new head of a Beijing office that oversees Hong Kong affairs.
“These new leaders are little known in Hong Kong,” said Regina Ip, a Hong Kong cabinet member and leader of a pro-Beijing party in the legislature.
As Hong Kong has become deeply polarized between Beijing’s allies and defenders of democracy, a shrinking political center is seeking compromise. But it is unlikely that it will get major concessions from Beijing.
James Tien, a moderate politician and honorary chairman of the pro-establishment Liberal Party, has become one of the few figures in the establishment willing to acknowledge that Beijing’s move is deeply unpopular and disturbing, despite the party’s assertion that the law has broad support.
“I think most people will say we don’t like it, we don’t want it,” he said last week in an interview with Radio Television Hong Kong. “But there is not much we can do.”
Keith Bradsher reported from Beijing and Elaine Yu from Hong Kong.