When the British handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997, China promised to respect its independence for the next 50 years. The shorthand for that plan was one country, two systems. But the two systems part of the plan could effectively come to an end tomorrow. China has tried and failed in the past to exert more control over Hong Kong, but this time it seems prepared to simply bypass Hong Kongs government entirely and pass the new law via the mainlands one party system:
Security rules proposed by the Hong Kong government in 2003 would have empowered the authorities to close seditious newspapers and conduct searches without warrants. That proposal was abandoned after it triggered large protests.
This time, China is effectively circumventing the Hong Kong government, undercutting the relative autonomy granted to the territory. Instead, it is going through Chinas rubber stamp legislature, the National Peoples Congress, which holds its annual session starting Friday.
You may recall that the months of protests in Hong Kong were prompted by an attempt to introduce a new law which might have made it possible for China to extradite people to the mainland for trial. That proposal was eventually withdrawn because of the protests. This time China is simply holding the vote in a place where protests wont matter. And China is using the authoritarians favorite gimmick, claiming opposition to the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong isnt home-grown but based on collusion with external forces.
In a clear effort to head off international concerns, Chinas Foreign Ministry sent a letter on Thursday night to ambassadors posted to Beijing, urging them to support the legislation and laying out the governments position.
The opposition in Hong Kong have long colluded with external forces to carry out acts of secession, subversion, infiltration and destruction against the Chinese mainland, the letter stated.
The BBC has a rundown of some the reactions to the move from pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong:
A number of pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong, including Democratic Party leader Wu Chi-wai, said the announcement was the death of one country, two systems.
Civic Party lawmaker Dennis Kwok said if this move takes place, one country, two systems will be officially erased. This is the end of Hong Kong.
His colleague Tanya Chan added that this was the saddest day in Hong Kong history.
The Wall Street Journal has more including an important point about the precedent being set here:
I know that everyone is scared and worried tonight, Joshua Wong, one of the citys best-known activists, wrote in a Facebook post. After this law is passed: What will happen to Hong Kong? How many people will be prosecuted? How many organizations will be banned?
I will continue to do what I believe to be correct, said Martin Lee, the 81-year-old founding chairman of the citys Democratic Party, who is known as the Father of Democracy in the city
I dont know which is worse: the law itself, or the process of allowing the standing committee to pass the law for Hong Kong, he said, referring to Beijings plan to use its highest political body to introduce laws for Hong Kong and override the citys lawmakers. Its a dangerous precedent set at a critical stage, and in the future they can repeat the same thing again and again.
Thats a key point. It almost doesnt matter how limited the new law passed Friday is. Once China established this precedent, i.e. that it can simply pass laws for Hong Kong via its one-party legislature in the mainland, Xi Jinping can go back and do this again and again for any reason at any time. This would make the claim of two systems little more than a mirage.
Here in the U.S., a bipartisan group of Senators are working on legislation which would sanction Chinese individuals involved in the attempted crackdown:
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.) and Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) said they had been working on the bill, which aims to defend human rights in Hong Kong and pressure China to preserve the territorys special status. They said Thursdays developments made the legislation more urgent, and they will press Senate leaders to take up the matter quickly
We would impose penalties on individuals who are complicit in Chinas illegal crackdown in Hong Kong, Mr. Van Hollen said. He called the move by Beijing a gross violation of Chinas agreement with the U.K. to preserve more freedom and autonomy in the territory.
Mr. Toomey called the move by China very, very deeply disturbing.
Senator Lindsey Graham said every effort should be made to prevent China from destroying Hong Kong.
President Trump: It is imperative that we put China on notice as to the consequences they would face if they try to end the one country, two systems arrangement of autonomy in Hong Kong.
Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) May 22, 2020
It is time to pass my legislation imposing sanctions on China for refusing to cooperate with the international community regarding the origins of #COVID19, failing to close their wet markets, and for their efforts to destroy Hong Kong.
Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) May 22, 2020
Sen. Ted Cruz also said it was time to reassess U.S. policy toward China.
The Chinese Communist Party is fast moving to end what is left of Hong Kongs autonomy, stripping away essential freedoms from Hong Kongs people. This is unacceptable and will require a reevaluation of U.S. policy if it is not immediately reversed. As Ive long said, Hong Kong is the new Berlin, and now the U.S. must stand strong with our allies and hold the line against the spread of communism.
Senators Rubio, Risch, and Gardner also released a joint statement:
Reports that the CCP will introduce legislation implementing Article 23 of the Hong Kong Basic Law at this weeks National Peoples Congress indicate Beijing will begin an unprecedented assault against Hong Kongs autonomy. The Basic Law states clearly that the authority to advance Article 23 legislation rests with the executive and legislative branches of the Hong Kong government, and not with Beijing. The Chinese government is once again breaking its promises to the people of Hong Kong and the international community.
This comes on the heels of a series of other serious blows to Hong Kongs self-rule in recent weeks, including the advocacy of a law criminalizing disrespect of the national anthem of the Peoples Republic of China and pressure on Hong Kongs legislature that led to the sidelining of pro-democracy legislators.
The United States will stand resolute in its support of the Hong Kong people. These developments are of grave concern to the United States, and could lead to a significant reassessment on U.S. policy towards Hong Kong.
Nikki Haley highlighted the issue.
No surprise that while countries are focused on a virus spread by Chinas carelessness, the Chinese Communist Party moves forward with its strategic plan by passing a law that tackles the political dissent that erupted on Hong Kongs streets last year. #StandWithHongKong https://t.co/XluNFMQ917
Nikki Haley (@NikkiHaley) May 21, 2020
And again, there is bipartisan consensus on this. Even Nancy Pelosi is expressing alarm.
Beijings announcement of yet another attempt to bring an end to the one country, two systems framework in #HongKong is deeply alarming. Attempting to circumvent the HK legislature shows a complete disrespect for the rule of law.
Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi) May 21, 2020
Last week we had the beginning of what looked like a new trade war between the U.S. and China. Now we have something potentially even worse. There are more than 7 million people living in Hong Kong many of whom have expressed their admiration for freedom and the United States in particular. Over the next few hours, their freedom could effectively be wiped out by the worlds largest communist authoritarian state.