Chris Yeung, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), fourth right, presents a petition to a representative of the Hong Kong Government during a rally outside the Central Government Offices in Hong Kong, China. (Photographer: Justin Chin/Bloomberg)

China Just Drew a New Red Line for Hong Kong

(Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong’s rare rejection of a U.K. journalist’s visa was about far more than the fringe political ideology he was accused of promoting. The move has been viewed as the latest escalation in a methodical campaign to tame dissent in the former British colony.

The push, which took shape after the Occupy Central movement locked down swaths of the city four years ago, has seen the Beijing-backed government expand the zone of national security threats to include pro-independence activists and journalists who give them a platform. The ultimate goal, say China’s supporters and critics, is passage of long-dormant legislation giving Hong Kong expansive powers to limit speech, protest and the activities of foreign groups.

China Just Drew a New Red Line for Hong Kong

Calls to enact the legislation -- known as Article 23, for the section of local law requiring its passage -- have reached their loudest level since 2003, when half a million protesters persuaded the government to abandon its last attempt. The day after the Foreign Correspondents’ Club hosted a pro-independence activist’s speech in August, China’s top minister overseeing the city, Zhang Xiaoming, blamed “Hong Kong’s inadequacies in protecting national security.”

China Just Drew a New Red Line for Hong Kong

After that, the government approved an unprecedented ban against activist Andy Chan’s Hong Kong National Party. The city also took the unusual step of denying a work visa renewal to Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet, who presided over Chan’s talk as the FCC’s acting president. On Tuesday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam dismissed as “pure speculation” efforts to link the visa decision to Chan’s address.

Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law
The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organisations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organisations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organisations or bodies.

The incidents have fanned concern that Chinese President Xi Jinping -- emboldened by economic might and political turmoil in the West -- is less committed to Hong Kong’s colonial-era guarantees of free speech, independent courts and capitalist markets. They come amid international criticism over Xi’s efforts to consolidate power on the mainland, including jailing rights lawyers, holding tens of thousands of ethnic Uighurs in “re-education camps” and expanding online censorship.

The U.S. and U.K. governments, as well as organizations representing almost 1,400 multinational companies with regional headquarters in Hong Kong, have demanded an explanation for Mallet’s visa denial. U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Tuesday he was “very concerned” about the move, which he could “only conclude is politically motivated.”

“These incidents cannot be brushed off as individual, isolated events every time they happen,” the American Chamber of Commerce, the largest international business chamber in Hong Kong, said in a statement Monday. “Any efforts to curtail press freedom in Hong Kong could damage Hong Kong’s competitiveness as a leading financial and trading center.”

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’s local office hit back at such criticism, saying in a statement Saturday that Beijing “firmly supports” the Hong Kong’s government’s handling of visa issues. “No foreign country has any right to interfere,” it said.

The controversy has put more pressure on Lam to rein in political dissent that has endured under China’s handover agreement with the U.K. In her policy address Wednesday she repeated her line that she wants “to create a favorable social environment” before advancing divisive legislation such as Article 23. Still, she pledged to continue using existing laws to quash threats to national security.

“I will listen to these views earnestly and explore ways to enable the Hong Kong society to respond positively to this constitutional requirement,” Lam said.

China Just Drew a New Red Line for Hong Kong

During a visit last year to mark 20 years of Chinese rule and swear Lam into office, Xi warned that challenges to Beijing’s authority wouldn’t be tolerated. Lam’s predecessor and former boss, Leung Chun-ying, has reemerged in recent weeks to call for revocation of the FCC’s government lease over Chan’s speech, comparing it to promoting “racism, antisemitism or Nazism.”

“There is a growing degree of pressure from the radical left on Article 23 and we are starting to wonder if Carrie can really hold on to her position on this matter,” said Alvin Yeung, leader of the opposition Civic Party. “No one has a crystal ball, but subject to what we have seen, those freedoms are under challenge.”

Existing Powers

China has demonstrated a willingness to use existing powers to crack down on its opponents in Hong Kong, even without passing Article 23. In recent years, tycoons and booksellers who published works critical of the Communist Party have disappeared from Hong Kong’s streets only to show up in police custody on the mainland -- an apparent violation of restrictions on national law enforcement operating locally.

After pro-independence activists were involved in a 2016 riot that left scores of police officers injured, the government seized on the public backlash. Officials such as China’s local legal chief Wang Zhenmin argued that publicly advocating pro-independence views would be a violation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law.

China Just Drew a New Red Line for Hong Kong

After the government used similar arguments to ban some radical candidates from seeking seats in the city’s Legislative Council in 2016, Leung led a legal fight to oust those who were elected to the body. China’s national parliament, the National People’s Congress, exercised a rarely used power to interpret the city’s law, paving the way for courts to remove two would-be lawmakers who had insulted the country during their oaths of office.

Chan’s party? It was banned using a colonial-era law that requires all social groups and organizations to register with the police. To many in Hong Kong, the government’s message was clear: Pass national security legislation, or we’ll use the tools we have.

“When there were the first attempts to legislate Article 23, we didn’t see any groups coming out to openly advocate for Hong Kong independence,” said Holden Chow, vice chairman of the largest pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong. “Now, we really see the existence of these sorts of organizations, so I would say we have an imminent threat and the need to protect our national security.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.