Ideas on speeding up the process of adaptation appeared. One study suggested China’s National People’s Congress could decree a national-security law for Hong Kong detailing what would be considered seditious
In late summer of 2014, Beijing said that it would hand-pick a limited number of candidates for the territory’s first direct election of its chief executive in 2017. Massive protests ensued. People’s Daily described them as attempts to ignite “color revolutions” of the type that had broken out in Eastern Europe – including Ukraine.
Otherwise, Hong Kong democracy activists didn’t express great alarm. They felt protected from heavy-handed mainland control by the “one country, two systems” promise of autonomy until 2047, as well as the protections afforded by Hong Kong legal traditions and the strength of popular mobilization to deter autocratic moves.
Beijing also appeared confident that, by and large, Hong Kong citizens preferred steady, central-government-guided rule to the uncertainties of democratic rough-and-tumble apparent on the streets of their city.
The party was wrong. Municipal district elections held in 2019, usually serene affairs centered on local issues like traffic and trash collection, were overwhelmingly won by pro-democracy candidates. Beijing media responded either by ignoring the outcome, claiming fraud, or alleging a foreign hand behind the outcome.
A year later, Xi sprang into action. China imposed the restrictive security law. Police arrests of democracy activists began. Electoral rules for the Legislative Council were altered, dissidents barred from participating, and only one candidate was allowed to run for the city’s chief executive post.
In short, Hong Kong politics had been neutered.
Last week, there was a surprise addition to Beijing’s tightening grip. The sudden decision to put Cardinal Joseph Zen, the 90-year-old emeritus prelate of Hong Kong, on trial was announced. Soon after pro-democracy advocates contemplated the dour meaning of Jimmy Lai’s new prosecution as a sign of things to come, they viewed Zen’s coming court appearance as signifying Beijing’s confidence that it could handle Hong Kong as it pleased.
It perhaps should have come as no surprise. In 2018, Pope Francis had worked out a deal with Beijing to consult and share in the appointments of Chinese bishops. It was a deal that Zen condemned as naive and a danger to Catholics in China who had long defended their loyalty to the Vatican. Zen called the deal the “killing of the Church in China by those who should protect it.”
Zen appeared in a Hong Kong court on Tuesday, charged along with five associates for having failed to register relief funds to help with legal fees for arrested pro-democracy protesters.