Tomorrow could be the end of Hong Kong as we know it

When the British handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997, China promised to respect it’s 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 Kong’s government entirely and pass the new law via the mainland’s 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 China’s rubber stamp legislature, the National People’s 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 That proposal was eventually withdrawn because of the protests.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 won’t matter. And China is using the authoritarian’s favorite gimmick, claiming opposition to the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong isn’t home-grown but based on collusion with “external forces.”

In a clear effort to head off international concerns, China’s Foreign Ministry sent a letter on Thursday night to ambassadors posted to Beijing, urging them to support the legislation and laying out the government’s 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 city’s 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 city’s Democratic Party, who is known as the “Father of Democracy” in the city…

“I don’t 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 Beijing’s plan to use its highest political body to introduce laws for Hong Kong and override the city’s lawmakers. “It’s a dangerous precedent set at a critical stage, and in the future they can repeat the same thing again and again.”

That’s a key point. It almost doesn’t 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 territory’s special status. They said Thursday’s 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 China’s illegal crackdown in Hong Kong,” Mr. Van Hollen said. He called the move by Beijing “a gross violation” of China’s 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.

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 Kong’s autonomy, stripping away essential freedoms from Hong Kong’s people. This is unacceptable and will require a reevaluation of U.S. policy if it is not immediately reversed. As I’ve 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 week’s National People’s Congress indicate Beijing will begin an unprecedented assault against Hong Kong’s 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 Kong’s self-rule in recent weeks, including the advocacy of a law criminalizing disrespect of the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China and pressure on Hong Kong’s 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.

And again, there is bipartisan consensus on this. Even Nancy Pelosi is expressing alarm.

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 world’s largest communist authoritarian state.

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