In the Battle for Hong Kong, Field Has Tilted Toward Beijing

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HONG KONG — An attempt by Beijing’s hand-selected chief executive in Hong Kong to push through a bill seen as a threat to civil liberties. A defiant crowd of hundreds of thousands marching against it. The deployment of the police to keep demonstrators out of the legislature.

It has been a tumultuous few days for Hong Kong. On Wednesday, the police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at a huge throng of protesters who forced lawmakers to postpone a debate on legislation to allow extraditions to mainland China — a measure Hong Kong residents fear would subject them to the Communist Party’s whims.

Hong Kong has been through this before. In the summer of 2003, its first chief executive, a shipping tycoon named Tung Chee-hwa, tried to pass stringent security legislation that China’s Communist leadership had insisted the former British colony adopt. Back then, Mr. Tung and his superiors in Beijing retreated in the face of the mass protests and quickly defused public anger.

But Hong Kong’s current leader, Carrie Lam, a lifetime civil servant, has vowed to keep fighting.

In standing firm, she is channeling the hard-line instincts of her boss, the Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, who has presided over a clampdown on civil society across China and essentially silenced all visible political dissent on the mainland. Her position illustrates how far the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China has tilted toward Beijing in recent years.

If Ms. Lam succeeds in riding out the protests and passing the extradition bill, she would be giving Beijing an opening to bypass Hong Kong’s independent courts and extend its authority over residents and visitors in the semi-autonmous territory.

She also would be creating the basis for a renewed push to enact the national security legislation, known as Article 23, that failed in 2003.

That legislation against sedition, subversion, secession and treason — which as drafted would have allowed the authorities to conduct warrantless searches and shut down newspapers — has long been a top priority for the Communist Party. Its passage would be an important political triumph for Mr. Xi, who could claim an achievement that eluded his predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

In several important ways, though, the differences between now and 2003 go beyond Mr. Xi.

Beijing has become much more willing to intervene openly in Hong Kong politics. The battle over extradition is also unfolding against the backdrop of an intensifying geopolitical competition between China and the United States. This has fanned longstanding fears among Chinese hard-liners that hostile foreign forces are using Hong Kong as a base of subversion against the mainland.

Beijing’s supporters now hold a larger majority in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council — 43 of 70 seats — than they did in 2003. Their camp now consists mostly of professional politicians rather than the patrician tycoons who once dominated the legislature. The tycoons had showed more independence, even if they generally sided with the government against the pro-democracy opposition.

In 2003, Mr. Tung’s attempt to push through the national security legislation collapsed when one of those tycoons, James Tien, grew alarmed by mass demonstrations. His pro-business political party withdrew its support for the bill, depriving Mr. Tung of a majority.

That is much less likely to happen with the class of lawmakers in office now. Some are far less affluent and more dependent on their $151,600 government salaries and generous expense accounts.

“They are all yes-men,” Mr. Tien said in an interview Wednesday of his successors in the legislature. “The reason they are yes-men is the last 15 years have seen a gradual shift to more Chinese influence.”

In Hong Kong’s hybrid political system — a result of British colonial tradition as much as Communist control — only half the seats in the legislature are filled by popular elections. Most of the other half of the seats are filled by industry and business groups, and China’s booming economy means Beijing enjoys greater leverage over the Hong Kong economy now than it did even a decade ago, especially in finance.

Beijing has not been shy about its support for Ms. Lam’s plan, which would allow the government to extradite people to the mainland for the first time, with few safeguards. Many in Hong Kong worry that Communist officials will use it to seize political dissidents and others who run afoul of the party, for trial on bogus charges. A protest on Sunday drew as many as a million people, or one in seven residents of the territory.

Ms. Lam has argued the bill is needed to close a loophole that has allowed criminals to escape justice by seeking refuge in the territory. Two of the seven members of China’s governing Politburo Standing Committee — Wang Yang and Han Zheng — have called for it to be approved.

It is the first time since Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997 that two members of the committee have spoken out on a Hong Kong issue. Three minister-level officials in the central government have also endorsed the legislation.

In the past, senior Chinese leaders had been more restrained because of Beijing’s promise to grant the territory “a high degree of autonomy.”

In 2003, Mr. Tien flew to Beijing after a half million people marched against the national security legislation and met with Liao Hui, then the minister in charge of Hong Kong and Macau affairs. They had a cordial conversation, with Mr. Liao only hinting at his views, and Mr. Tien returned to Hong Kong under the mistaken impression that Mr. Liao had given him freedom to decide how he and his party would vote.

“Sometimes we might be too gentlemanly and not make our points too clearly,” Mr. Tien said on Wednesday, sitting in his suede-walled boardroom overlooking Victoria Harbor. “I thought I convinced him how serious the matter is, and he was nodding his head.”

That kind of “cultural misunderstanding between the Hong Kong Chinese and the mainland Chinese is one of the issues that has not allowed us to build trust,” said Christine Loh, a former lawmaker and under secretary of the environment.

Beijing is more direct now. Its officials regularly summon local politicians and business leaders to meetings at the Communist Party’s local headquarters, a skyscraper that, with a silvery, four-story observation sphere at the top, looks like something out of a Batman film.

Mr. Xi has not commented publicly on the legislation, and there is some debate in Hong Kong about what he thinks of the tense situation in the territory. As television stations broadcast live coverage of the police battling protesters in Hong Kong on Wednesday, state television in Beijing led the evening news with Mr. Xi’s official trip to neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Beijing’s allies in Hong Kong say that Ms. Lam, not Beijing, proposed the extradition bill and has driven it forward. She has portrayed it as her response to a case involving a Hong Kong man accused of killing his girlfriend on a trip to Taiwan. (Officials in Taiwan, though, have objected to the legislation and said they would not seek the man’s extradition if it passes.)

Ms. Lam is widely criticized not only by the pro-democracy opposition in Hong Kong but also, more quietly, by pro-Beijing politicians. They say she misread public opinion, mismanaged the issue and provoked a political crisis that has damaged the city’s international standing.

At this point, though, it would be difficult for Beijing to retreat without losing Ms. Lam. Through her career, she has sometimes expressed a willingness to resign and join her family in Britain.

All three of Ms. Lam’s predecessors as chief executive under Chinese rule have left office under a shadow, with none completing a second term. Beijing has no enthusiasm for the acrimonious selection process that would be likely from yet another resignation.

Chinese propaganda outlets accuse opponents of the bill of colluding with hostile foreign forces. Pro-Beijing politicians point to trips by local democracy leaders to Washington this spring to meet Vice President Mike Pence and State Department officials.

Mr. Tien, whose change of heart doomed the national security bill in 2003, said the extradition plan could cause much bigger problems for Hong Kong businesses than the earlier legislation. But he said he did not want to fight Beijing at a time when the United States appears to him to be trying aggressively to block China’s rise.

“On China versus America, I am on China’s side; on President Trump versus President Xi, I’m on President Xi’s side,” he said.

He predicted that the legislature would pass the law next week, and said that he and other business leaders now just want to prevent it from being abused.

The government also prevailed five years ago, when huge crowds of demonstrators paralyzed swathes of Hong Kong while demanding free elections to choose the territory’s next chief executive. The government refused to concede, and after waiting two months, the police dispersed remaining protesters.

The extradition legislation, though, has galvanized the public in a different way. Many residents see it as a government attempt, as in 2003, to strip them of rights they have long enjoyed and put them at greater risk of arrest.

“We have no democracy,” said Emily Lau, a former lawmaker and chairwoman of the city’s Democratic Party, “but enjoy a level of personal freedom and rule of law and an independent judiciary, and we do not want them taken away.”

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