Beijing’s Reactions to November Developments Surrounding the Crisis in Hong Kong

Publication: China Brief Volume: 19 Issue: 21

Image: At a demonstration held in Hong Kong on November 28, some protesters hold aloft American flags to celebrate passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, widely viewed as a symbolic statement of support for the protest movement by the U.S. Government. (Source: Hong Kong Free Press)

Introduction

The year 2019 has seen a gradually escalating crisis in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The territory has seen continuing unrest since mass protests first broke out in June, in response to a draft extradition law that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be arrested and sent to mainland China for prosecution. The month of November saw five further significant developments related to the situation in Hong Kong:

  • Police raids on Hong Kong universities and violent student resistance: Escalating levels of violence between police and protestors reflect increasing antagonism between the two sides, and bode ill for the peaceful restoration of order in the territory in the near term.
  • The Hong Kong High Court ruling on the “mask law”: The legal dispute over the city administration’s effort to enforce a law banning the wearing of masks at demonstrations, and Beijing’s response, presents a significant challenge to the autonomy of Hong Kong’s independent judicial system.
  • District council elections: The outcome of district council elections held on November 24 presented a significant loss for the pro-Beijing city administration, and indicated broad public support for the goals of the pro-democracy protest movement.
  • U.S. passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019: The passage of this legislation, albeit largely symbolic, has expressed U.S. Government support for the protest movement and placed a further chill in relations between Washington and Beijing.
  • An intensified propaganda campaign against alleged hostile foreign forces: PRC officials and state media launched an even-further intensified program of public messaging intended to pin the blame for the Hong Kong crisis on foreign “black hands” manipulating events from behind the scenes.

These developments are likely to significantly impact events in the HKSAR in the weeks going forward—as well as affecting the policy decisions made by senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials observing the unfolding situation from Beijing.

Police Raids on Hong Kong Universities and Student Resistance

Citizen protests, which have occurred primarily on weekends since early June, have become increasingly violent as tensions have grown over the past six months. On October 1—the same day that Beijing celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—police in Hong Kong fired live rounds at protesters for the first time (SCMP, October 1). On November 4, a student protestor named Alex Chow suffered a fatal brain injury after falling from the third floor of a parking garage where police were dispersing protesters with tear gas. [1] The latter incident provided the immediate backdrop for significant escalations in confrontations between student protestors and police, with major stand-offs centered around some of the city’s most prominent universities.

On November 11, police officers confronted Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) students who were allegedly dropping objects from a bridge to obstruct the Tolo Highway in the eastern New Territories. As the situation deteriorated, protesters hurled projectiles at officers, and police fired back with pepper balls and tear gas rounds (SCMP, November 11). This led to a police raid on the CUHK campus in Sha Tin, which was resisted by students with improvised barricades and hurled projectiles; police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets (SCMP, November 12). The clashes and property destruction on campus led the CUHK administration to cancel the remainder of its spring academic term (CUHK press release, November 13).

Image left: A street outside the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), littered with improvised obstacles placed by student protesters to block the entry of police vehicles. (Image: SCMP/Youtube)
Image right: A November 13 Hong Kong Police press conference on the clashes with student protesters at CUHK. (Source: Hong Kong Police Force Twitter)

During a press briefing on November 13, the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF) stated that CUHK had become “a battleground for criminals and rioters,” and asserted that the school “was used as a weapons factory as several hundred petrol bombs were thrown on campus in one single day” (Hong Kong Police Force Facebook, November 13). The same day, the PRC’s Hong Kong Liaison Office warned that Hong Kong was “sliding into the abyss of terrorism,” and called for a harsher crackdown to end the chaos by “every necessary means” (SCMP, November 14). [2]

Violent confrontations between the police and protesters reached a peak on November 17, when police declared the situation at Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) in Kowloon a “riot” and laid siege to the campus.  The raid was prompted in part by concerns expressed by university officials: a PolyU spokeswoman indicated that the university had reached out to the police on November 16 after becoming aware that “many of its laboratories were broken in and some dangerous chemicals taken” (SCMP, November 16). In response to the raid, PolyU students and protesters resisted violently with archery equipment taken from the school’s stores of sporting equipment, and threw Molotov cocktails at officers. Some protesters tried to escape the police cordon around PolyU by abseiling down to a highway (see accompanying image), while others tried unsuccessfully to flee using underground sewage tunnels. Police said that around 1,100 people associated with the protest were either arrested or had their details taken down by police officers (RTHK, November 20).  The most dramatic phase of the stand-off ended by the evening of November 19, when volunteers and first aid workers began leaving the campus (SCMP, November 20). However, some of the most determined protestors barricaded themselves in university buildings, producing a stand-off with police that lasted through the end of the month (Hong Kong Free Press, December 1).

On November 18, sympathy protesters blockaded busy roads and hurled petrol bombs in locations around the city. Tsim Sha Tsui, Jordan, Yau Ma Tei, and Mong Kok saw the most chaos, and over 200 people were arrested in Mong Kok. Police reportedly fired 1,458 rounds of tear gas, 1,391 rubber bullets, 325 beanbag rounds, and 265 sponge grenades in the course of these incidents (SCMP, November 20). According to a Hong Kong government report, police officers fired an estimated total 4,775 rounds of tear gas throughout face-offs throughout the city between November 2-18 (Hong Kong Government, November 27).

Image: Student protesters lower themselves by rope from a bridge in an attempt to escape the police siege of Hong Kong Polytechnic University (undated, circa November 17-18). (Source: AFP)

In the wake of these incidents, the city government reportedly withdrew $178 million in planned funding for the expansion of Polytechnic University, and pulled two funding proposals worth $32 million for the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong (Ming Pao, November 27). Many of Hong Kong’s universities—including some of the top-ranked higher education centers in East Asia—are publicly funded through the University Grants Commission, a colonial-era institution overseen by the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo). Unconfirmed accounts have indicated that the PRC has leaned on pro-Beijing members of the LegCo to cut new funding for public universities (HKFP, November 30)—a possible sign that the PRC intends to seek tighter control over the city’s educational system.

Controversies Surrounding the “Mask Law” and Hong Kong’s Judicial Independence

In early October Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam invoked an anti-mask law that would give police officers the power to arrest any person near a protest who refused to remove their facial covering upon demand. On November 18, the Hong Kong High Court ruled that the law “exceeds what is reasonably necessary to achieve the aim of law enforcement,” and that its provisions were unconstitutional under Hong Kong’s Basic Law (RTHK, November 22). Two days later, the city government appealed the ban, and the High Court has agreed to suspend the ruling until it reviews the case in January 2020. Government lawyers are expected to challenge the High Court’s interpretation, and to argue for an executive-led framework that would give the LegCo more power to address the ongoing crisis in the city (SCMP, November 27). If the government loses its appeal in the High Court, it can challenge the decision in the Court of Final Appeal, Hong Kong’s ultimate adjudication body.

On November 19, a representative of the Legislative Affairs Commission (LAC) of the PRC National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) declared that the Hong Kong court system had overstepped its authority to adjudicate, and that the November 18 decision was itself unconstitutional (RTHK, November 20). The LAC’s claim was predicated on the assumption that Hong Kong’s Basic Law is a piece of domestic PRC legislation governing the HKSAR as a region of China. By this interpretation, Hong Kong’s Basic Law—and all subsequent Hong Kong legislation based upon it—derives its authority from the PRC constitution, and is thereby ultimately subject to the central government in Beijing (RTHK, November 21).

The ongoing mask ban controversy, and especially the comments by the LAC, have renewed concerns in Hong Kong that either Beijing—or more directly, pro-Beijing members of the LegCo—will attempt to further erode Hong Kong’s civil liberties by weakening its traditionally independent judicial system. It is also possible that pro-Beijing LegCo members could renew discussions around the now-toxic 2003 Article 23 national security amendment—or its equally contentious counterpart, the Anti-Extradition Bill, which first catalyzed Hong Kong’s opposition protest movement in spring of this year (China Brief, June 26).

The Hong Kong District Council Elections and Beijing’s Response

On November 24, Hong Kong voters turned out for the HKSAR’s district council elections. The district councils largely attend to local affairs, and their role in the city administration is chiefly advisory; however, the elections provided a barometer of public sentiment at a time when both opposition and pro-administration factions have claimed public support. In these high-turnout elections (estimated at over 70 percent of eligible voters), opposition candidates achieved a landslide victory: winning 392 out of 452 total seats (87%), which will give them control of 17 out of the territory’s 18 district councils. Conversely, these local elections represented a dramatic loss for the HKSAR’s largest pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB). In the prior district councils, pro-Beijing representatives held 292 of 431 total seats (68%); their share will now fall to 60 of 452 seats (13%) (HKFP, November 25; SCMP, November 27).

While DAB still holds a majority in the LegCo, the November 24 upset has also ensured that pan-democrats are almost certain to gain several of the District Council (Second) functional seats on the LegCo in the 2020 Legislative Council elections. (The LegCo is comprised of 35 members directly elected by geographical constituencies and 35 functional constituency seats, 5 of which are nominated by the district councils.)

The results were a serious symbolic setback for the city administration and its patrons in Beijing. In the immediate wake of the elections, PRC official sources were initially limited to terse announcements that omitted discussion of the outcome, but repeated familiar accusations that “rioters, in concert with external forces” had “seriously disrupted the electoral process” (Xinhua, November 25). It is very likely that the outcome produced an initial sense of genuine shock and confusion among senior CCP officials, who have internalized much of their own propaganda—and who rely for information on bureaucratic channels staffed by people incentivized to tell superiors what they want to hear.

Image: “The Opposition Tampers with a Fair Election”—a cartoon in the PRC state-controlled English-language outlet China Daily, which alleged election tampering on the part of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. (Source: China Daily Twitter Account, November 25)

When a more articulated formal PRC response emerged in the following days, it doubled down even further on familiar themes, divided into four broad categories: (1) Youth in Hong Kong have a mindset corrupted by colonial, Western influences; (2) Pro-administration voters in Hong Kong were intimidated or confused by protestors, or otherwise prevented from voting via electoral fraud (see accompanying image); (3) Sinister foreign forces manipulated the election results; and that (4) Hong Kong residents must come to accept the “one country, two systems” formula as interpreted by Beijing. As expressed in one state media commentary:

[F]idelity to the Basic Law and “one country, two systems” principle have not been established in Hong Kong, [which] follows the “colonial” system under the common law and adopts practices consistent with the West… Western forces have been exercising influence in the city, which makes some Hongkongers believe they can challenge the “one country” principle. The election result reflected a majority of Hongkongers’ misunderstanding of [the] “one country, two systems” principle, the Basic Law, [and] the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation… (Global Times, November 27).

Foreign “Black Hands” and U.S. Passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act

From the outset of this year’s unrest, official PRC sources have maintained a consistent narrative that the Hong Kong protest movement is secretly controlled by the sinister “black hands” (黑手, hei shou) of hostile foreign forces—usually unspecified, but clearly understood to be centered in the United States—who are intent on staging a “color revolution” (颜色革命, yanse geming) in the territory (China Brief, September 6). In an August editorial titled “Withdraw Your Black Hands and Pull Back from the Precipice” (收回黑手 悬崖勒马, Shouhui Hei Shou Xuanya Le Ma), People’s Daily opined that “some politicians in Western countries have been unable to restrain themselves… stirring up trouble, giving support to violent radicals, ‘removing the mask’ to interfere in China’s domestic affairs, and [thereby] playing an extremely important role in Hong Kong’s violent activities” (People’s Daily, August 22).

Image: “Fanning the Flames”—a cartoon from PRC state-controlled press, in which Uncle Sam faces dangerous blowback resulting from his interference in Hong Kong. Such media materials are part of a sustained PRC propaganda campaign intended to promote the narrative that the U.S. Government is the secret controlling “black hand” behind unrest in Hong Kong. (Source: China Daily)

Beijing’s efforts to depict the protests as the result of a foreign conspiracy were kicked into even higher gear after the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law in late November (Congressional Record, November 20; WhiteHouse.gov, November 27). This legislation amends the earlier Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992 by requiring the U.S. Department of State to report annually to Congress as to “whether Hong Kong continues to warrant treatment under [U.S.] law in the same manner as… applied to Hong Kong before July 1, 1997” in areas such as commercial agreements and export control policy. The law also requires an “assessment of the degree of any erosions to Hong Kong’s autonomy” in areas such as political and voting rights, press freedoms, and judicial independence (Congress.gov, November 21).

PRC officialdom has reacted furiously to passage of the new U.S. law. State press opined that the “Hong Kong bill seriously distorts the facts and reflects the sinister intentions of certain U.S. politicians, and that it “blatantly support[s] the violent rioters and [will] intentionally add fuel to the flames of violence” (People’s Daily, December 2). On November 27, the day after the act was signed into law, U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad was summoned by PRC Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng to receive “stern representations” regarding this “gross hegemonic move,” and the “severe interference” by the United States in Chinese domestic affairs (PRC Foreign Ministry, November 28). On December 2, the Chinese government announced that it was suspending any stops in Hong Kong by U.S. military aircraft or ships, and that it was issuing sanctions against five U.S.-based non-governmental organizations (see further below) (Xinhua, December 2).

The Propaganda Campaign Against International NGOs

On December 2, the Chinese government announced that it was levying unspecified sanctions against five U.S.-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs): the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom House (Xinhua, December 2; China Daily, December 3). A PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson justified the move on grounds that the specified NGOs “have supported anti-China plotters who messed up Hong Kong through various means… offering financial, logistic, organizational and training support, inciting extreme violent criminal acts and inflaming separatist activities… They are much to blame for the chaos in Hong Kong” (PRC Foreign Ministry, December 3).

Concurrent with the foreign ministry announcement, the Xinhua state news agency released onto social media a five-minute English-language propaganda video claiming, based on unspecified evidence, that “over 100 overseas NGOs have been shown to be involved in fomenting [Hong Kong’s] current unrest.” Among the organizations named were the Open Society Foundation, the International Bar Association, UN Watch, and the Human Rights Foundation, which sponsored and “provided platforms for Hong Kong separatists.” As presented in the film, the most subversive and sinister NGO is “the notorious National Endowment for Democracy in the United States.” The NED is depicted as a Cold War entity “well-known for its meddling in the internal affairs and political elections in numerous foreign countries,” and the video implies that NED acts as a front for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (see accompanying images) (Xinhua Twitter, December 2).

Images: Screenshots from a Xinhua-produced English-language film titled “Some Foreign NGOs Play a Sinister Role in Hong Kong Unrest,” which was posted to social media on December 2. (Source: Youtube / Xinhua Twitter)

Although blaming the Hong Kong crisis on foreign NGOs may appear absurd to most international observers, it should be treated seriously as an insight into the blinkered and conspiratorial mentality of the CCP leadership. Indoctrinated by their own propaganda, and unable to admit any fault, CCP leaders must cast about for hostile foreign conspiracies to explain their own failures in statecraft. Crude and ham-handed as it may be, the propaganda campaign against international NGOs actually reveals a great deal about the CCP’s worldview and its interpretation of the crisis in Hong Kong.

Conclusion

The developments of autumn 2019 bear significant implications for the future of Hong Kong. They are also revealing in regards to the policy course likely to be followed by the increasingly hardline CCP leadership under Xi Jinping. Beijing’s responses to recent events in the HKSAR serve to illustrate its continuing rigid hard line: calls for tougher police crackdowns on protesters; threats to effectively eliminate judicial independence by central government fiat; refusal to learn from what election results indicate about public sentiment in Hong Kong; and the propagation of paranoid conspiracy theories to explain the territory’s continuing unrest. The CCP’s policy responses (or lack of coherent policy responses) throughout 2019 have demonstrated the Party’s unwillingness to move beyond its reflexive impulse to delegitimize and suppress any opposition, without consideration given to engagement or compromise. This same course should be expected to continue as the Hong Kong crisis prepares to enter its second year.

Elizabeth Chen is the China Program Assistant at the Jamestown Foundation.

John Dotson is the editor of China Brief. Contact him at: [email protected].

Notes

[1] Although Hong Kong’s protests have been one of the most peaceful large scale protest movements in recent years, other casualties have occurred. On June 15, a protester dressed in a yellow poncho fell to his death during a demonstration (Taiwan News, June 16). In the week following Chow’s death, another young protester was critically injured after being shot by police at point blank range. Elsewhere in the city, a man was set on fire during a dispute between protesters and counter-protesters (Axios, November 11).

[2] The uncharacteristic chaos and violence involved in the police siege of Hong Kong Polytechnic University caused many to fear that Beijing might decide to deploy the Hong Kong PLA Garrison to restore order in the streets; these fears were stoked when plainclothes garrison members marched out of the Kowloon East base to participate in voluntary cleanup efforts (SCMP, November 16). Although PLA soldiers have participated in disaster relief efforts in Hong Kong before, many saw the Saturday cleanup effort as an implicit threat from Beijing. When questioned about the garrison’s activities, Chief Executive Carrie Lam was adamant that the PLA would not be called in to Hong Kong (HKFP, November 19).