In Hong Kong, China’s control may seem like “death by a thousand cuts”

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Hong Kong, once one of Asia’s busiest cities, now faces deep pessimism.

The stock market is in the tank, home values ​​have plummeted and emigration is fueling a brain drain. Some of the The best restaurants, spas and shopping centers. The places local residents flock to are just across the border in the mainland Chinese city of Shenzhen.

“It pains me to say that Hong Kong is over,” Stephen Roach, an economist and former president of Morgan Stanley Asia long known for his optimism about the city, wrote in a recent commentary in The Financial Times.

The government needs to revive Hong Kong’s economy and promote its global image, but instead it has focused primarily on national security. On Tuesday he moved with unusual speed to approve a package of New and updated safety laws. aimed at curbing foreign influence and dissent with penalties such as life imprisonment for treason and other political crimes. The legislation could deter even more foreign companies, which already have a diminishing presence, from investing in Hong Kong.

The unrest hanging over Hong Kong is partly a consequence of its status as a bridge between China and the West, with the city’s growth dragged down by the mainland’s faltering economy and China’s tensions with the United States.

But at the heart of Hong Kong’s problems is an identity crisis, as Beijing-backed city officials alienate the once-free city from the West and embrace the top-down political culture and nationalist fervor of early China. President Xi Jinping.

“People are very unhappy for all kinds of reasons,” said Emily Lau, a veteran pro-democracy politician and former lawmaker who now hosts a YouTube talk show. “Of course, the authorities won’t admit it publicly, but I think they know.”

Hong Kong, a former British colony, had been promised a degree of autonomy from Beijing after it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, with freedoms not seen on the mainland. But after massive anti-government demonstrations Enveloping the city for months in 2019, Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong in 2020 that authorities used to fiercely crush pro-democracy opposition.

According to the Chinese Communist Party, the protests were fueled by Western forces seeking to undermine Chinese sovereignty. John Lee, the city’s Beijing-backed leader and former police officer, presents Hong Kong as a city still under siege by foreign subversive forces.

Mr. Lee says The new security laws will eliminate such threats and will be “the most solid foundation for Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.”

Mr. Lee and Chinese officials have argued that those laws should have been enacted a long time ago. The Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, requires Hong Kong to retain its own political and economic system for 50 years, but also requires it, under Article 23, to pass its own internal security laws. The government first attempted to enact Article 23 laws in 2003, but backed down after hundreds of thousands of residents took to the streets in protest, fearing the legislation would limit civil liberties.

With security laws in place, officials now say, the government can focus on other needs, such as restarting the economy.

But it is unclear whether Hong Kong will be able to retain the dynamism and vitality that fueled its prosperity at a time when Beijing’s control is so open. The new rules also raise questions about how the limits have been changed.

“Xi Jinping knows that Article 23 will damage Hong Kong’s reputation as a financial center,” said Willy Lam, a China policy analyst at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington. “He knows Beijing needs Hong Kong for foreign investment, foreign exchange and stock market listings. But he is a totally ideological leader. “It is much more important for him to demonstrate his power, flex his muscles and castrate all opposition in Hong Kong.”

To visit Hong Kong today and dig beneath the surface is to see a city that is very different from the vibrant, sometimes raucous, political culture that existed before the current crackdown.

Now, government critics and opposition lawmakers languish in jail. Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy media mogul, is on trial on national security charges. Independent news organizations have been forced to close. Public officials and public school teachers are required to take loyalty oaths and pass national security tests.

In this new environment, not even sports can escape politics. Last month, a protest broke out in Hong Kong after soccer star Lionel Messi was absent from an exhibition match against a team of local players due to an injury. The government had promoted the Inter Miami game, for which many tickets were sold for hundreds of dollars each, as a way to help generate excitement in the city.

But when Messi remained on the bench, disappointed Chinese fans, officials and state media suggested that the United States had used him in a conspiracy to embarrass Hong Kong. Messi later posted a video clip on social media denying the allegations and professing his affection for China, footage that some Internet users said looked like a hostage video.

One of the most strident voices criticizing Messi was Regina Ip, a senior adviser to the Hong Kong government and a veteran pro-Beijing lawmaker.

“The people of Hong Kong hate Messi, Inter-Miami and the black hand behind them, for the deliberate and calculated snub towards Hong Kong,” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

The controversy surrounding Messi was a prominent example of an increasingly testy official atmosphere, but it was far from the exception.

Ms Ip also criticized Mr Roach, the economist, for his “Hong Kong is over” comment in the Financial Times, saying he ignored the real causes of the financial centre’s economic problems, which she attributed to US policies. such as federal reforms. increases in interest rates. Other senior officials accused Roach of scaremongering.

(In response to the backlash, Mr. Roach wrote a commentary for The South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper, arguing that the city lacked the dynamism to overcome Beijing’s growing political control, geopolitical tensions with the United States and a prolonged decline in China’s economic growth.)

“The energy and unbridled optimism that were once Hong Kong’s most prominent feature, its greatest asset, have been undermined,” Roach wrote.

City officials now routinely lash out at foreign governments, diplomats and the media for any criticism of Hong Kong’s policies. Even voices within the Hong Kong establishment are not immune to rebukes.

When a pro-Beijing lawmaker complained that police officers were issuing too many fines, Lee, the city leader, rebuked him for what he called an act of “soft resistance.”

Authorities have used this term to describe a passive and insidious challenge against the government. According to Lee, that challenge includes complaints that Hong Kong is too focused on national security.

The Article 23 legislation is intended to eradicate that “soft resistance,” officials said. has said, as well as fill the gaps left by the national security law that China directly imposed. The laws focus on five areas: treason, insurrection, sabotage, external interference and theft of state secrets and espionage.

Legal experts and trade groups said the laws’ broad and often vague wording created potential risks for companies operating or seeking to invest in Hong Kong. The government struggled this month to deny reports that it was considering banning Facebook and YouTube as part of the legislation.

“An unlimited flow of information is crucial for the city to maintain its status as Asia’s financial center,” Wang Xiangwei, an associate professor of journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University, wrote in an editorial published Monday in The South China Morning Post. , where he once served as editor-in-chief.

The uncertainty has led some foreign companies to start treating Hong Kong as if it were the mainland. They have begun using burner phones and limiting local employees’ access to their companies’ global databases.

Mark Lee, originally from Hong Kong, said that the more his city looked and felt like the mainland, the more tempted he was to emigrate abroad.

The 36-year-old personal trainer said that in recent years about a quarter of the 200 people who belonged to his WhatsApp group to organize group runs and training sessions have left Hong Kong. He is reluctant to have a child because he is concerned about Hong Kong’s public school system, where national security education is required.

“When Hong Kong is no longer my city, I will have to leave,” Lee said. The changes, she added, felt like “death by a thousand cuts.”

Keith Bradsher and Olivia Wang contributed reports.

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