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Politics

Xi's Hong Kong power grab deftly masks domestic shortcomings

With a single stroke, president shuts down critics in his party and justifies US tensions

Delegates applaud as Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives for the opening session of China's National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on May 22. (Xinhua via AP)

NEW YORK/HONG KONG -- China's new national security legislation for Hong Kong threatens to eviscerate the "one country, two systems" principle under which the territory has been run since 1997.

But the move allows Chinese President Xi Jinping to distract from a multitude of domestic troubles. It gives him a way to drum up public support and silence political rivals -- and a justification for tensions with the U.S. that have flared anew.

Mass protests in Hong Kong could well result, as could more punitive measures by the international community. But for Xi, any external consequences pale beside his No. 1 priority: staying in office. He needs to shore up his power base ahead of the Chinese Communist Party's 2022 National Congress, where he seeks to secure a third term.

"Xi's top 10 priorities are all domestic," said Isaac Stone Fish, senior fellow at the New York-based Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations.

"His constituency is the six other members of the Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee, the Chinese elite and the People's Liberation Army, more than Mike Pompeo," Stone Fish said, referring to the American secretary of state who has ramped up criticism of Beijing in recent days.

Members of China's Politburo Standing Committee with President Xi Jinping in the center: Clockwise from left, Wang Yang, Li Keqiang, Han Zheng, Wang Huning, Li Zhanshu and Zhao Leji.   © Reuters

In his annual speech Friday to the National People's Congress, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said that "we will establish sound legal systems and enforcement mechanisms for safeguarding national security in the two special administrative regions" of Hong Kong and Macao.

Li had said in a government work report last year that the two territories' governments and chief executives had Beijing's "full support in exercising law-based governance." He had no such words for them this year, signaling greater involvement in the region by the mainland government.

In a statement issued Friday, Pompeo condemned China's proposal to "unilaterally and arbitrarily impose national security legislation on Hong Kong."

It marks "a death knell for the high degree of autonomy Beijing promised for Hong Kong," he said.

"One country, two systems" was designed to give Hong Kong a high level of internal autonomy for 50 years after its return from the U.K. to China. The autonomy included a separate legal system from the mainland.

But the new proposal will likely enjoy strong mainland support. "This is likely to be overwhelmingly popular in China," said Brookings Institution fellow Ryan Hass, a former director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia at the National Security Council under the Obama administration.

"There is little sympathy on the mainland for the Hong Kong protests," Hass said.

The draft bill submitted Friday by Wang Chen, vice chairman of the standing committee of the National People's Congress, bans acts of secession, terrorism and foreign interference. It also allows mainland national security organs to set up agencies in Hong Kong.

"Protests and exchanges with the international community could become illegal, and Demosisto could be shut down," said activist Agnes Chow, referring to her youth pro-democracy group.

"'One country, two systems' will collapse completely," Chow said.

Agnes Chow Ting is a founding member of Hong Kong's Demosisto pro-democracy group. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

Hong Kong's benchmark Hang Seng Index plunged Friday, ending the session down 5.6%. Real estate shares suffered some of the greatest declines.

The yuan hit its weakest position against the dollar in seven months or so at one point that day.

But for Xi, the calculated move diverts attention from his sketchy initial response to COVID-19, the loss of economic momentum, and the mishandled relations with the U.S., widely seen as the worst since then-President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972 to pave the way for normalized ties.

Symbolically, the announcement of the legislation came just before Premier Li's speech to the NPC in which, breaking with tradition, he could not set a target for gross domestic product growth.

"Xi is vulnerable," Brookings' Hass said. "His custody of the U.S. relationship and his economic management has been questionable. But if his rivals were really looking for a vehicle to bring him down, it would be his handling of Hong Kong and Taiwan."

"His rivals would be asking, 'Why are you so passive on Hong Kong, allowing these kids to embarrass us?' And for all his stated experience with Taiwan and the cross-Straits relationship, 'Why has [China-hostile] President Tsai Ing-wen been reelected with such a majority and growing stronger?'"

Xi abolished term limits for the presidency with a constitutional revision he pushed through in March 2018, potentially allowing him to stay in office beyond the customary two five-year terms.

But whether he can slide into a third term is "not a done deal at all," Hass said. "In fact, I don't think Xi himself thinks it's a done deal. If he did, he wouldn't take so much risk."

The live inauguration ceremony of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen is seen playing at a shop in Taipei, Taiwan on May 20.    © Reuters

Taiwan likely factored into Beijing's decision to move ahead with the Hong Kong national security bill. This week, in a highly controversial move, Pompeo issued a statement congratulating Tsai on her Wednesday inauguration for a second term, saying support for Taiwan in the U.S. is "bipartisan and unanimous."

Previous American administrations had conveyed such messages more discreetly, and Pompeo's statement angered Beijing.

China is increasingly concerned with the rising popularity of Tsai, who strongly opposes reunification with the mainland under the "one country, two systems" framework, as Xi has proposed.

A secondary aim of the Hong Kong bill was likely to curb pro-independence forces in Taiwan, analysts said.

"Beijing realizes that it's not going to win over Taiwan by treating Hong Kong nicely," the Asia Society's Stone Fish said.

And with Washington unlikely to respond in any physical way beyond condemning the actions, "for those in Taiwan counting on the U.S. to defend them, Xi wants this law to make them think twice," Hass said.

The monthslong Hong Kong protests of 2019 succeeded in scrapping a controversial extradition bill. But they also led to more than 8,000 arrests, leaving a massive scar on society there. The national security legislation could open a new chapter in the struggle over the territory's future.

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