Hong Kong Protests: In Seizing Control, China Sidelines its Allies

BEIJING — China’s Communist Party has long pursued its agenda in Hong Kong by working through loyalists among the city’s top officials, lawmakers and tycoons. That behind-the-scenes approach was a key feature in preserving considerable autonomy for the territory.

Now, as the party prepares to grab more power in Hong Kong after months of sometimes violent unrest last year, it has pushed aside even its own allies in the city. The party’s strategy sends a clear message to Hong Kong: In quashing challenges to its authority, Beijing won’t hesitate to upend the delicate political balance at the core of the city’s identity.

Party-appointed lawmakers in Beijing are expected to pass a sweeping security law for Hong Kong on Tuesday. Yet few among the city’s Beijing-backed establishment, even at the highest levels, appear to have seen a draft. Its top leader, Carrie Lam, and secretary for justice, Teresa Cheng, have both acknowledged knowing little about the law beyond what has been reported in the news.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Ms. Cheng said earlier this month.

Bernard Chan, a Hong Kong cabinet official and a member of the Chinese legislature, said that he had not even expected Beijing to act this spring. “I’m actually surprised, caught by surprise with the timing,” he said in an interview.

The sidelining of Hong Kong’s elite is the latest sign that in his pursuit for power, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, is willing to defy political norms established over decades, and will do so swiftly and secretively. Mr. Xi’s decision to have Beijing take charge points to how deeply the months of protests in Hong Kong have unsettled his administration’s confidence in its handpicked allies in the city.

But the establishment has struggled to balance Beijing’s desire for control with residents’ demands to preserve the autonomy that has shielded them from the mainland’s feared security services and opaque, often harsh legal system.

When protests erupted last summer, the city’s leadership was responsible for trying to quell it but was not empowered by Beijing to make major concessions, resulting in an impasse. The pro-Beijing camp now also sees the Communist Party’s new assertiveness as a sign of its impatience with the local establishment’s failure to pass national security laws on its own.

“They delegated that authority to us to do it and we failed, we failed 23 years. So they said, OK, we’ll take it back,” said Mr. Chan, the top government adviser. “So we can’t say anymore that we didn’t have a chance.”

Beijing also increasingly recognizes that the influence of its pro-business allies has fueled public anger over the small pensions and costly housing that have made Hong Kong one of the most unequal places in the world. Support for the pro-Beijing camp has fallen to record lows: They suffered a resounding defeat in local district elections in November, and could see potentially heavy losses in legislative elections in September.

The party’s push for more overt control throws into question the role of Hong Kong’s elite in the coming months and years. Establishment figures now find themselves in the awkward position of having to defend a law they have not seen in detail, amid growing pressure from Beijing to demonstrate loyalty.

“I am also disappointed that we can’t see the bill,” Elsie Leung, a stalwart Beijing ally and former secretary for justice, told reporters, in a rare admission. She said, though, that she believed that Beijing had heard different views about the law.

For many in Hong Kong, such reassurances have largely rung hollow. The city’s residents are accustomed to very public, sometimes rowdy discussions of new laws by the city’s legislature. Confronted with Beijing’s secrecy, Hong Kong’s democracy activists, scholars and former chief justices have asked: Who would get to rule on cases? Would Hong Kong’s residents be extradited to the mainland? Would the law be used retroactively to prosecute protesters?

The law would make it a crime to collude with foreigners, push for independence, subvert the state or otherwise endanger the party’s rule. Beijing has not yet disclosed how these crimes will be defined, but many pro-democracy lawyers and activists fear they will be applied broadly to muzzle dissent and shut down the opposition.

“These new leaders are little known in Hong Kong,” said Regina Ip, a Hong Kong cabinet member and the leader of a pro-Beijing party in the legislature.

As Hong Kong has become deeply polarized between Beijing’s allies and democracy advocates, a shrinking political center has looked for compromises. But it is unlikely to wring major concessions from Beijing.

James Tien, a moderate politician and honorary chairman of the pro-establishment Liberal Party, has emerged as one of the few establishment figures willing to acknowledge that Beijing’s move is deeply unpopular and unsettling, despite the party’s assertion that the law enjoys wide support.

“I think most people will say that we don’t like it, we don’t want it,” he said last week in an interview with Radio Television Hong Kong. “But there’s nothing much we could do.”

Keith Bradsher reported from Beijing and Elaine Yu from Hong Kong.

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