Hong Kong crisis escalates as China moves to hasten demise of city?s autonomy under cover of coronavirus

Long-standing questions about the efficacy of the autonomy provision, known as Article 22 of the Basic Law, were sharpened after Beijing’s liaison office said Friday it was not bound by the noninterference law and was legally permitted as a supervisory body to voice its criticism of legislative affairs in Hong Kong, including a filibuster by opposition lawmakers.

With Hong Kong’s streets in recent months cleared of mass protests because of the coronavirus, legislators and activists in the city’s pro-democracy camp say the Communist Party and Hong Kong authorities have used the opportunity to cripple their movement through a multipronged approach while the pandemic has diverted the world’s attention.

Aside from the mass arrests and increasingly pointed declarations about China’s “supervisory” role over the city, Chinese officials in Hong Kong, including Luo Huining, the newly installed director of the central government’s liaison office, have called for improved “national security education” in Hong Kong and the passage of a national security law that would toughen law enforcement and prosecutorial powers to help prevent protests.

Chinese officials have consistently framed the massive, sometimes violent protests as an extremist uprising stoked and manipulated by the United States and directed on the ground by some of the activists arrested by Hong Kong police over the weekend.

Beijing said Tuesday that it “fully supported” the arrests of figures who had been involved in illegal assembly and “extreme violence.” In its statement, the Chinese cabinet’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office charged that U.S. support for the protesters amounted to a “political conspiracy” and a “reckless trampling of human rights and rule of law in Hong Kong.”

“The law is sacred and everyone is equal before the law,” the central government office said. “No one has extrajudicial privileges, and those who violate the law must be prosecuted in accordance with the law.”

In a separate statement, Beijing underscored its claim that it holds “supervisory” powers over Hong Kong and said the central government “must intervene” if a situation arose that harmed the country and Hong Kong.

“The Central Government grants the Special Administrative Region a high degree of autonomy, which does not mean that the Central Government does not have or surrenders its supervisory power,” the statement said. “In Hong Kong, whenever the central government exercises power in accordance with the law, there are always people who clamor: ‘The central government is intervening in Hong Kong’s autonomous affairs.’ Let us ask these people: When Jimmy Lai publicly clamored to ‘fight on behalf of the United States,’ why didn’t you come out and express your opposition?”

The Hong Kong Bar Association issued a statement Monday saying there was no provision in the Basic Law giving central Chinese authorities “supervision” over affairs that the Hong Kong government administers on its own.

Statements from Beijing and Hong Kong officials on “such a highly important legal issue have caused deep public unease,” the lawyers’ group said.

Fitch Ratings downgraded Hong Kong’s long-term debt on Monday, citing “deep-rooted, sociopolitical cleavages” that threatened to tarnish the city’s reputation as a smoothly run international hub.

Beijing is “taking a more vocal role in Hong Kong affairs than at any time since the 1997 handover,” the ratings firm noted.

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