For years, even as China has applied increasing pressure on Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement, the framework of "One Country, Two Systems"—the dividing line that keeps Hong Kong relatively autonomous from the authoritarian mainland—has been respected by the Chinese Communist Party in theory.
The illusion of autonomy has now officially been shattered.
Shock waves reverberated around the world as a representative of China's National People's Congress, the largest gathering of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) each year, announced that delegates at Friday's session would consider a move to enact controversial national-security legislation in Hong Kong.
Should the Chinese government successfully impose its own national-security regulations on Hong Kong, it would open the door to any other law or regulation the Chinese government wishes to impose on Hong Kong in the future.
At issue is whether Hong Kong is governed by its own laws, under the semi-autonomous status that has made it an enclave of relative democracy and liberalism—and which has maintained Hong Kong's status as an international hub of commerce—or under China's.
The proposed measure is extremely concerning not just because the specifics are likely to be vague and overbroad in language, exposing pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong to increased and more severe persecution, but because Article 23 also calls for measures banning any "foreign political organization" from operating in Hong Kong. This could push out any remaining international observers, eliminating global attention on Hong Kong's fight for freedom.
Governed by a mini constitution known as its Basic Law, Hong Kong has faced a looming legal controversy since it was handed over to China from British rule in 1997. Article 23 of that charter calls for Hong Kong's local government—which is free of direct control from Beijing and is comprised of both pro-CCP and pro-democracy officials—to pass laws banning treason or sedition against the mainland government. That provision has never been enforced, and Hong Kong's government has never passed those laws. Attempts to do so have been extremely controversial: A move to enact it in 2003 led to massive protests.
In a similar vein, massive protests in 2019 were touched off by a move by Hong Kong's government to allow extradition of Hong Kong citizens to mainland China—which many saw as making Hong Kongers subject to mainland law and persecution for political activism.
At the National Party Congress in Beijing, CCP officials will consider taking this controversial step unilaterally: enacting a national-security law in Hong Kong all on their own. In effect, this would tear down the dividing line between Hong Kong and the rest of China.
The circumvention of Hong Kong's Basic Law would accelerate the death of Hong Kong's rule of law.
And the announcement appears carefully timed. On Friday, the annual National People's Congress started in Beijing. Delegates from the CCP, led by President Xi Jinping, are expected to rubber-stamp the regime's new policies.
Earlier this week, the state-owned television channel CCTV released a documentary called "The Other Hong Kong," focused on smearing pro-democracy activists that have been key to the city's protest movements over the past several years.
The timing of the doc's release and the announcement of the national security bill would seem to indicate the party was planning to make Hong Kong's semi-autonomous status a target of the National People's Congress.
The Chinese Communist Party has never seemed satisfied with modern-day Hong Kong. Having been a British colony for a century, the city was too westernized and democratized for the CCP's taste, and the people too freedom-loving. Ever since the handover of Hong Kong back to China, the Chinese government has been pushing for Hong Kong to be more like any other Chinese city. The Hong Kong government, largely seen as a puppet of the Chinese government, has been cracking down on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press for years.
Hong Kongers' frustration boiled over and became the Umbrella Movement of 2014, a 79-day protest that paralyzed the city. It ended without much success in influencing government policies, but its momentum propelled last year's anti-extradition law protests, the straw that apparently broke the back of the Chinese government's patience.
Last year's protest drew international attention and support from around the world. Unlike the Umbrella Movement, it was notably decentralized, often organized by regular Hong Kong citizens on platforms, such as the popular internet forum LIHKG or Facebook groups. Nevertheless, millions of people flooded the streets and struck a chord with the international community.
The decentralized nature of the movement, however, did not prevent the Chinese government—through state-run media—from blaming foreign "black hands" for directing the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. Rather than recognizing and condemning Hong Kongers' effort to protect their freedoms, Chinese state-owned media often targeted the US and UK governments, claiming that they bankrolled and advised pro-democracy leaders in Hong Kong to stir up trouble.
This rhetoric was repeated in "The Other Hong Kong," which alleged foreign interference in Hong Kong's protests through iconic pro-democracy figures such as Anson Chan, Martin Lee, Jimmy Lai and Albert Ho.
The Chinese government has now set the perfect stage for the enforcement of Article 23 in Hong Kong by laying the foundation of claims that foreign interference is responsible for pro-democracy sentiment in Hong Kong.
Logically, one might assume China would simply put more pressure on pro-Beijing legislators in Hong Kong to enact national security laws. But Beijing is impatient with the Hong Kong government's progress in securing its interests, and instead is signaling that it would entirely circumvent Hong Kong's proper legal procedure altogether by exploring an alternative way to directly impose freedom-limiting laws on Hong Kong.
It is clear that Xi Jinping has grown tired of pretending Hong Kong has any kind of autonomy. Under his leadership, the CCP will try to cut Hong Kong off from the international community so that its pro-democracy movement loses steam, giving the Chinese government more space to end the city's already-declining freedom. If the international community loses its attention on the city's struggle, Hong Kong will soon turn into the "other Hong Kong" that the CCP has envisioned and worked for.
Joy Park is the legal counsel for Asia at the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) and leads HRF's Hong Kong Desk project. As a member of HRF's Center for Law and Democracy, Joy's research focuses on legal issues related to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly in Asia. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.