- + Fifteen pro-democracy activists have been arrested in Hong Kong.
- + Xi Jinping has used the detentions as reprisal for insubordination.
- + The pandemic allows Xi Jinping to take what he wants.
Why is Xi Jinping’s level Hot?
Answer: He is taking retribution for past challenges.
In June 2019, Hong Kong broke out into what would become the largest set of protests in its history. Sparked by a bill that would have permitted extraditions to mainland China, these protests posed a huge threat to Chinese sovereignty, and thus, Xi Jinping’s authority. By mid-June, more than two million people had joined the movement motivated by police brutality in the form of intense beatings, arbitrary arrests and the misuse of tear gas and water cannons. In July, demonstrators broke into the legislature to tear down photos and vandalize the walls. They shut down the airport and were joined by opposition civil servants.
Due to the growing conflict, Carrie Lam, the fourth Chief Executive of Hong Kong since 2017, was forced to formally withdraw the bill on September 4th, but for the demonstrators, it was a little too late. By then, the protesters’ demands had developed into five main points; (1) the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill, (2) the retrieval of the denomination of the movement as “riots”, (3) the drop of charges against those that protested, (4) an investigation against the brutal police force and (5) genuine universal suffrage in the region so that Hong Kong would be able to select its leaders without them being hand-picked by Beijing.
As protests aggravated over time, Xi Jinping’s legitimacy over the region faced a serious threat. Throughout October and November, live ammunition was fired by police forces, face masks were banned by alluding to the Emergency Regulations Ordinance (legislation originated in the colonial era), universities turned into combat zones, candidates for local elections were banned from running and deaths mounted. In response to this chaos, the US further undermined the Chinese President’s authority as it passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which threatened those that “suppressed basic freedoms in Hong Kong” with sanctions.
Nonetheless, one of the hardest hits for Xi Jinping’s power came in the shape of the November local elections. With more than 70% of voter turnout –highest in Hong Kong’s history-, the pro-democracy candidates won 17 out of 18 district councils and over 86% of total seats. And so, as mainland China’s legitimacy over the region seemed to freeze, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived like a wave of hot air. While the world’s attention is focused on the global health crisis, several governments have utilized this opportunity to tighten their autocratic grip, and Xi Jinping has not fallen behind.
On April 18th, the world watched as China, yet again, disregarded Hong Kong’s autonomy granted by the “one country, two systems” structure when fifteen pro-democracy leading activists in Hong Kong were arrested for defying the mainland’s rule in the 2019 protests. This has provided Xi with the authority he had lost when he faced outstanding opposition last year.
What is changing Xi Jinping’s temperature?
Answer: The COVID-19 pandemic.
As the current pandemic has forced a halt in all public gatherings, Hong Kong’s massive protests have been put on pause. This movement had been successful in preventing attempts by China to overstep its powers in the region and for attracting external support. But as citizens are forced to quarantine in their houses and international eyes are elsewhere, Xi Jinping has been able to take retribution for past defiance of his authority without any vital contestation.
Without the pandemic, these mass arrests would have been faced with strong opposition due to the importance of the detained activists. They constitute of an older generation that advocated for peaceful rebellion, and include people like the 81-year-old Martin Lee, founder of the Democratic Party and considered the father of democracy in the region; Jimmy Lai, a prominent media figure and the publisher of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily and Raphael Wong, the chairman of the League of Social Democrats.
Similarly, international reactions have not been as pressing as they would have been without a global health crisis in place. In contrast to the response during the 2019 protests, the arrests have been merely condemned by the British Foreign Office and the State Department, but no other measures have been taken.
These arrests have not been the only move by Xi Jinping. In January, Luo Huining, a Chinese hardliner, was assigned as the new director of the central government’s Liaison Office. Besides calling for polemic national security laws to be passed, China’s Liaison Office released a statement asserting that the mainland’s bodies overseeing Hong Kong and Macau were “authorized by central authorities to handle Hong Kong Affairs” and alleged that these bodies did not fall under Article 22 of the Basic Law which states that “no department under Chinese central and local governments may interfere in the affairs which the HK special administrative region administers on its own”.
Therefore, as the pandemic has become the main theme in daily headlines, Xi Jinping has found an opportunity to regain his control and authority over the region without any genuine challenges.
What is driving Xi Jinping?
Answer: A show of power for other regions.
Xi Jinping has persistently used territorial disputes as a show of power, but the 2019 protests have seriously weakened it. As Hong Kong became a special administrative region of China under the Basic Law of 1997, it was granted certain autonomy from the mainland until 2047. However, China has repeatedly undermined the region’s autonomy.
For instance, in 2003 new legislation was tried to put in place, which would have allowed the government to ban organizations in Hong Kong if they were banned in mainland China. Similarly, in 2015 the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress proposed reforms to the region’s electoral system which would allow Beijing to pre-screen candidates for the Chief Executive of Hong Kong. But debates over the legitimate authority of China over a region don’t stop at Hong Kong.
For decades, the jurisdiction over Taiwan has also been a source of disagreement, and after the Hong Kong protests, this dispute has strongly resurfaced. In January 2020, the Democratic Progressive Party won the presidential elections in Taiwan by a landslide as a side effect of Chinese crackdown in Hong Kong, and voters were even seen holding up five fingers alluding to the five demands by Hongkongers.
And so, as Xi Jinping’s power over certain territories was undermined due to the 2019 protests, he has gone above and beyond to reclaim his authority. He is using the pandemic to exhibit Hong Kong as an example of the retribution that is taken when he is defied.
What does it mean for you?
Answer: We don’t know where he will stop and that is concerning.
The arrests themselves can be seen as a tactic to prevent certain candidates from running in the September legislative council elections in Hong Kong since contenders are not allowed to run if they have been sentenced to jail for more than three months. But deep down, Xi Jinping’s measures pose a higher threat. These detentions are a small exhibition of force by the Chinese leader, but they are also a test of the waters.
He is aware that in times of a global crisis, the internal opposition and the international response to his acts will be much weaker. His suspicions have been confirmed through the reactions after the arrests. Unfortunately, this pandemic and other global crises could be used by Xi Jinping as a further push to close the gap between the “two systems”, or even as a chance to worsen his domestic human rights record.
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