The ruling Chinese Communist Party has ushered in an era of more direct political control over Hong Kong, with a cabinet reshuffle and a slew of statements targeting pro-democracy figures in recent days.
The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) of China's cabinet, the State Council, has made an unprecedented string of public statements reasserting China's rule over the city, which was promised a "high degree of autonomy" following the 1997 handover.
"Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong," the office said in a statement on its website.
"People in the opposition camp and some radicals accuse the central government of interfering in Hong Kong’s high [degree of] autonomy, but ignore or even invite ... interference by foreign forces in enforcement actions by the police and the Department of Justice," the statement said.
The HKMAO also threw its support behind the recent arrests of pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai, Democratic Party founder Martin Lee, and constitutional expert Margaret Ng, who were among 15 pro-democracy figures charged with "illegal assembly" at the weekend.
"This is a normal law enforcement action to safeguard the rule of law, order and social justice in Hong Kong. We firmly support [it]," a spokesperson for the office said.
It accused foreign governments of trying to glorify "illegal assemblies" and the subsequent "violent actions" that followed.
"We resolutely oppose any external forces to interfere in Hong Kong affairs and (we will) unswervingly safeguard national sovereignty, security, development interests and Hong Kong's long-term prosperity and stability," they said.
The spokesperson also took aim at pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok, saying he had deliberately violated his oath of allegiance and committed "misconduct in public office" by using filibuster tactics at a recent debate in Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo).
Dubious exemption clam
Kwok had been trying to obstruct the passing of the National Anthem Law, which would outlaw any disrespect to the March of the Volunteers, the anthem of the People's Republic of China. The bill was introduced after Hong Kong soccer fans repeatedly booed the anthem at the start of matches.
“The attempts by people like Civic Party lawmaker Dennis Kwok to paralyse the LegCo have directly hindered the effective operation of Hong Kong’s political system, the constitution and the constitutional order of the special administrative region," the HKMAO said.
"How is it possible that the central government should just sit and ignore such a serious incident?" it said in a fresh statement on Tuesday.
Last week, the HKMAO claimed that China's Central Liaison Office in Hong Kong is exempt from Article 22 of the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which states that departments of the Chinese government must not interfere in the day-to-day running of of the city.
"It absolutely has the power and responsibilities to supervise the correct implementation of the one country, two systems principle and the Basic Law in Hong Kong," a HKMAO spokesman said.
Kwok responded that "the writing is on the wall" for him as a lawmaker, but called on the people of Hong Kong never to give up the fight for freedom and democracy.
"The Central People's Government are now exercising their so-called 'comprehensive jurisdiction' over every aspect of Hong Kong domestic affairs," Kwok said.
He said Hong Kong is now seeing the "complete demolition" of its promised autonomy, under the "one country, two systems" principle.
"As for myself, their intention of disqualifying me as a Legislative Council member is very clear," Kwok said. "The writing is on the wall."
After he spoke, pro-democracy lawmakers chanted "Go Hong Kong people!"
'All-out offensive' against democrats
Hong Kong current affairs commentator Liu Ruishao said Beijing sees the coronavirus pandemic as a good time to assert its power in Hong Kong, as well as to launch an all-out political attack on pro-democracy lawmakers, high profile figures, and their supporters.
"Beijing will be demonstrating its total control in a number of ways," Liu said. "[The ruling Chinese Communist Party] has lost patience with one country, two systems, and it is accelerating all of its moves."
"They are going on an all-out offensive in the hope of slashing away at the mess [democrats]," Liu said. "We can't rule out the suspension of uncooperative lawmakers during the current LegCo; they won't necessarily wait until the September elections."
The HKMAO's new assertiveness comes amid a major cabinet reshuffle in the administration of chief executive Carrie Lam, with Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Secretary Patrick Nip to take over as head of the Civil Service Bureau, government broadcaster RTHK reported.
RTHK understands that the current civil service chief Joshua Law will leave government, along with Home Affairs Secretary Lau Kong wah, Innovation and Technology Secretary Nicholas Young and James Lau - the Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury, the station said, citing government sources.
RTHK said Nip would likely be replaced by Immigration Director Erick Tsang.
The reshuffle comes after Nip was embroiled in the row over whether or not the ban on interference by Chinese departments included China's Central Liaison Office and the HKMAO.
The government had at first seemed to disagree with the liaison office which insisted last week that it is not subject to Basic Law Article 22, RTHK reported. But by the third statement, it had decided the liaison office was indeed correct, the station said.
The Hong Kong government's position is now that the liaison office has "supervisory powers" over Hong Kong. Lam later said "some officials" may not have understood the Basic Law, in a possible reference to earlier statements by Nip.
On Nov. 27, 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, requiring the State Department to report annually to Congress whether Hong Kong is “sufficiently autonomous from China” to justify keeping the city’s distinct trading status, and whether China has “eroded Hong Kong’s civil liberties and rule of law,” as protected by the city’s Basic Law.
It also enables the U.S. government to freeze the assets of, and refuse visas to, officials deemed responsible for human rights violations in the city.
Tens of thousands of people poured onto the streets of Hong Kong, waving American flags and singing the national anthem of the United States in a gesture of thanks after the law was passed.
Reported by Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.