Two hours before sunset on Thursday, storm clouds turned the skies above Beijing black. At ten o’clock that night, the thunderbolt struck.
At a late night press conference, a spokesman for China’s parliament said it would impose a new national security law on Hong Kong, 23 years after the former British colony reverted to Chinese sovereignty. The decision sent shockwaves through the international community and on Sunday sparked Hong Kong’s largest street protests since the coronavirus epidemic had forced the territory to enact strict containment measures.
Although it came as a surprise, the move had been meticulously planned at least seven months earlier. Analysts said the announcement reflected Beijing’s frustration with Hong Kong officials and its fear that election losses in September would further weaken their hand.
“Beijing’s message basically was: ‘We waited for you guys long enough and now the global situation has changed,’” said a member of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing establishment, who asked not to be named.
Chinese officials, he added, felt they could no longer tolerate a lack of national security legislation in the territory as protests escalated and relations with Washington deteriorated.
“When the US secretary of state [Mike Pompeo] uses his podium to cheer for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists, it just gives the Chinese government more ammunition to go ahead and legislate for us.”
The first clue that change was planned came in October. The Chinese Communist party’s Central Committee issued a long summation of its annual deliberations that included a cryptic reference to Hong Kong. The party would, it said, “build and improve a legal system and enforcement mechanism to defend national security in [Hong Kong]”.
For many analysts, this seemed to suggest that President Xi Jinping might finally force Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, to draft and pass a new national security law.
The Hong Kong government is required to do this in accordance with Article 23 of the territory’s mini constitution. In 2003, Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s first Chinese chief executive, attempted to do so but had to abandon the effort in the face of massive public opposition.
Mr Xi had little confidence that Ms Lam could succeed where Mr Tung had failed, analysts said.
Last year Ms Lam’s disastrous handling of a proposed extradition agreement between Hong Kong and China triggered six months of mass protests that only paused when the coronavirus outbreak forced people to stay at home. Beijing alleged that the civil unrest had been orchestrated by “hostile foreign forces” led by the US.
“The unrest following the proposed [extradition bill] has thrust Hong Kong into the gravest situation since its return [to China] and has further highlighted the national security loopholes in the city,” Xie Feng, head of the Chinese foreign ministry’s Hong Kong office, said at a briefing on Monday.
If Ms Lam could not pass the extradition bill, which she shelved, Chinese officials concluded she would not be up to passing an even more controversial national security law.
The territory’s pro-Beijing camp is also expected to lose its majority in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, or Legco, at elections in September because of public anger over the extradition bill.
“The Hong Kong government is not capable of passing Article 23 legislation in the current atmosphere,” said Zhang Jian, a Hong Kong expert at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.
“The ultimate responsibility to safeguard national security lies with the central government, which urgently needs to do so given all the demonstrations [in Hong Kong] and interference there by foreign countries.”
As a result, Mr Zhang and others argue, Mr Xi’s best option was for the NPC to simply impose a national security law on Hong Kong, as is allowed under Article 18 of the Basic Law.
Further clues as to what was planned came in December when Mr Xi embarked on an overhaul of the Chinese government offices responsible for dealing with Hong Kong and its sister “special administrative region”, the former Portuguese colony of Macau.
He replaced the director of Beijing’s de facto embassy in Hong Kong, the Central Liaison Office, in January, and the head of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office a month later.
Luo Huining, the new CLO director, had previously served as the top party official in Shanxi, an energy-rich province with a population of 40m. The HKMAO’s new boss, Xia Baolong, worked closely with Mr Xi when the future president was running Zhejiang province.
The Financial Times is making coronavirus coverage free to read to help everyone stay informed. Find the latest here.
“The appointments of Luo and Xia showed Xi intended to take a hard line on Hong Kong,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at Soas in London. “The fact that Xi was beleaguered in late January and February [by the coronavirus pandemic] only made it more important for him to show strength.”
Chinese policy experts said Mr Xi, Mr Luo and Mr Xia knew that their decision to impose a national security law on the territory risked more protests as well as international condemnation, but were determined to press ahead.
“It will reignite the protests but that’s not a reason to give up,” said Mr Zhang. “We can’t stop safeguarding national security.”
Additional reporting by Nicolle Liu and Sue-Lin Wong in Hong Kong