China appoints hard-line security chief to be its representative in Hong Kong

Move comes amid an ongoing war of words between Beijing and London over the city's promised freedoms
By Lee Yuk Yue and Chen Zifei for RFA Cantonese
2023.01.16
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China appoints hard-line security chief to be its representative in Hong Kong Armed police stand guard as they escort a prison van that is believed to carry media mogul Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily, to the High Court in Hong Kong, China, December 1, 2022. China appoints hard-line security chief to be its representative in Hong Kong.
REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

The ruling Communist Party has appointed hardline Hong Kong national security chief Zheng Yanxiong to head its Central Liaison Office in the city.

Zheng, who first made headlines as the mayor who cracked down on the rebel Guangdong village of Wukan amid a bitter land dispute in 2011, has been moved from his position as head of Hong Kong's Office for Safeguarding National Security to his new post as Beijing's envoy in the city.

He told journalists on Monday that the city needs to align itself with Chinese leader Xi Jinping's program of "the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation," now that an ongoing crackdown on dissent under a draconian national security law has brought "hard-won social order."

"To further unleash the driving force of prosperity, it is imperative that we avail ourselves of the tremendous opportunity arising from Chinese-style modernization, and keep contributing to the historical process of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation," Zheng said.

For this prosperity to take effect, Hong Kong needs to move in lockstep with the rest of China, Zheng said in comments reported by state news agency Xinhua.

“Typical hawk”

"Zheng Yanxiong has always been a typical hawk -- someone who will never be soft when it comes to cracking down on the general public," Hong Kong current affairs commentator To Yiu-ming told Radio Free Asia. "He was promoted ... because of it."

To said Zheng's appointment will likely normalize the growing practice for the Hong Kong government to announce "decisions" that are in reality merely nodding along with decisions already made in Beijing.

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Head of the Office for Safeguarding National Security of the Central People's Government in the HKSAR, Zheng Yanxiong delivering a speech April 2021. Zheng, the hardline head of Hong Kong's national security agency, has been appointed China's top representative in the city, state media said on January 14, 2023, as Beijing tightens its grip since 2019 democracy protests. (Photo by Anthony WALLACE / AFP)

Zheng, a native of Guangdong's Shantou city, has been sanctioned by the United States government along with his predecessor Luo Huining for his part in implementing the national security law in Hong Kong.

His appointment came as the British government accused Beijing of failing to fulfill its promises made in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration governing the 1997 handover to Chinese rule, in which China promised to let Hong Kong people rule Hong Kong and to maintain the city's traditional freedoms for at least 50 years.

"Twenty-five years on from the handover, the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities are undermining the rights and freedoms promised to Hong Kongers under the Sino-British Joint Declaration," the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office said in a six-monthly report on the status of Hong Kong.

"Hong Kong’s autonomy is declining, and the pervasive, chilling effect of the National Security Law seeps into all aspects of society," the report said.

"Freedoms are being systematically eroded by Beijing on multiple fronts [while] the authorities continue to crack down on free speech, the free press, and free assembly," it said. "Individuals and civil society groups are censoring themselves, and most independent news outlets have been forced to close."

Authorities continue to arrest and prosecute high-profile dissidents, pro-democracy activists and politicians, imprisoning them straight away with "little chance of bail,” it said.

Jimmy Lai trial

The Chinese embassy in London expressed "strong dissatisfaction" with the report, saying it "distorted facts [and] grossly interfered in Hong Kong affairs, which are China’s internal affairs."

It said the imposition of the national security law -- which criminalizes public criticism of the authorities -- had helped "restore order" in Hong Kong.

"Hong Kong has long been returned to China, and Hong Kong affairs are purely China's internal affairs that allow no foreign interference," an embassy spokesman said in a statement on the embassy's official website.

The report comes amid an ongoing war of words between Beijing and London over the treatment of jailed pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai, a British citizen. His attempt to hire top British defense attorney Timothy Owen prompted a ruling from Beijing that allows Hong Kong’s national security committee chaired by chief executive John Lee to kick him out of the defense team, citing "national security" concerns.

Lai's London-based lawyers recently called for a meeting with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in a bid to discuss potential diplomatic routes to securing Lai's release, later meeting with junior foreign office minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan on Jan. 10.

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British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks at the House of Commons in London, Britain, Jan. 11, 2023. The appointment of Zheng Yanxiong comes amid an ongoing war of words between Beijing and London over the city's promised freedoms UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Handout via REUTERS

The head of this legal team, Caoilfhionn Gallagher, recently told a journalists' club that she had received three rape threats and a death threat, alleging Beijing's involvement in an attempt to intimidate her and the rest of the London-based team.

"The Beijing and Hong Kong authorities are no longer content with attempting to simply silence their critics in their own borders,” Gallagher told a meeting at the Frontline Club on Jan. 12. “They are now attempting to use the long arm of the state to try to silence critics wherever in the world it may be.”

“Rejected complacency”

Lai's son Sebastien Lai also addressed the club, saying his father had "rejected complacency ... when he chose to criticize a powerful government."

"There are those who, when given the keys to wealth and the perks of the Establishment, choose not to rock the boat because of the backlash they might face," Lai said in comments quoted on the Doughty Street law firm's website. "Jimmy Lai is not such a person."

"Though he went from a child laborer in a garment factory to owning his own clothing line and media company, he rejected complacency and the status quo when he chose to criticize a powerful government and support a primarily student-led democracy movement in his beloved Hong Kong," he said, calling on the international community to recognize that the rule of law no longer functions in the city.

"The cheapest currency in an autocratic country is fear," Lai told journalists and media workers.

Lai was sentenced on Dec. 12 to five years and nine months in jail for fraud.

Trial postponed

Meanwhile, his trial on several charges of "collusion with a foreign power" under the national security law has been postponed until September 2023.

Hong Kong officials have yet to confirm whether they will exercise their power to disqualify Owen from defending Lai in court in September.

However, Lai's Hong Kong-based lawyers issued a statement on Jan. 13 claiming that he had exclusively instructed them to represent him.

"Mr Lai has never instructed anyone apart from his legal team in Hong Kong to act on his behalf in relation to his criminal and related proceedings in Hong Kong," Robertsons Solicitors said in a statement reported by the South China Morning Post and the Hong Kong Free Press.

Sunak told the House of Commons on Jan. 11 that he would "remain robustly engaged" in the matter, and that his government is already taking action on Hong Kong, "not least [by] providing refuge for hundreds of thousands of people and being robust in standing up to what we believe to be Chinese aggression and the undermining of the settlement that we fought so hard to achieve."

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A man takes a picture at East Coast Park Precinct as the city's skyline is seen during the dusk in Hong Kong on December 20, 2022. (Photo by Philip FONG / AFP)

Former legal sector lawmaker Dennis Kwok said the recent move by the Hong Kong government, who requested an interpretation from Beijing after losing its bid to disqualify Owen from Lai's national security trial in two successive Hong Kong courts, had further eroded judicial independence in the city.

"This doesn't just prevent foreign lawyers from representing clients in national security cases; it has actually given the [Hong Kong] national security committee unlimited power to pass legally effective orders at will, instructing legislative, judicial and other agencies in areas where the committee thinks there are legal inconsistencies [between Hong Kong and the rest of China]," Kwok told Radio Free Asia.

"The national security committee has become the equivalent of the political and legal affairs committees [in China], with the power to have its decisions implemented," he said.

Setting a precedent

Australian lawyer and rights activist Kevin Yam agreed, saying that the interpretation had set a precedent for the national security committee to override all branches of government and bypass due process and Hong Kong's institutions.

"After the National People's Congress interpreted the law, [Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office chief] Xia Baolong made it clear that they were granting the national security committee unlimited powers akin to those of a supreme emperor," Yam said. 

"Now Hong Kong's administration, legislation, and judiciary can be forced at any time to kowtow to Beijing on any matter," he said.

Another former Legislative Council member, Ted Hui, gave a couple of examples of the committee's broad-sweeping powers.

"The censorship of movies has been added to [their remit], giving the national security committee the power to ban films from being screened in Hong Kong," he said. "National security committee input is also used to select candidates in industry association elections."

"Neither of these examples use the national security law to limit individual rights, but they ... still deeply affect the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong," he said.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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