China Purges Critics in Hong Kong 20 Years After Handover


It was an act of defiance broadcast live on Hong Kong TV: A lone lawmaker walks through the city’s legislative chamber, taking small Chinese and Hong Kong flags from his colleagues’ desks and returning them upside down.

Seven months later, Cheng Chung-taifaces a charge of flag desecration and as many as three years in jail. He might also lose his seat as part of an unprecedented purge of lawmakers that could remove key checks on China’s power for the first time since the former British colony’s return 20 years ago. The move was made possible by China’s decision to intervene in a court case and instruct judges on how to interpret Hong Kong law. 

Such tactics show how far Beijing believes it can now go to impose its will on Hong Kong, despite the “high degree of autonomy” guaranteed by treatywith the U.K. for 50 years. Last year, when the British government criticized the abduction of local booksellers critical of Communist Party leaders, China simply told London to “stop interfering.” The city’s Beijing-appointed administration is also prosecuting demonstrators who protested China’s court intervention in November.

Hong Kong is emblematic of the growing confidence with which China has exercised power under President Xi Jinping -- whether disregarding an international tribunal ruling on its claims in the South China Sea or jailinghuman-rights advocates at home. The city, with its free speech, independent courts and capitalist financial system, provides a window on Xi’s approach to the institutions of Western democracy.

“China is challenging many of the basic norms of the international community,” said Jerome Cohen, a professor at New York University’s School of Law who has been studying China’s legal system since the 1960s. “It looks like they are people who just believe might is right, and they try to get away with whatever they can.”

Economic Ties

For many businesses, the high cost of operating in a place with the world’s most expensive housing, as well as pricey school tuition and high wages, is a more immediate concern than political freedom, said Tara Joseph, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong is still a place valued by large and global businesses, because of rule of law,” Joseph said. “‘One country, two systems’ is crucial for Hong Kong. We are watching what’s going on.”

Read more at Bloomberg