(Bloomberg) -- As protests rage in Hong Kong against China’s increased grip over the city, Beijing signaled it would intervene more in everything from education to the selection of the city’s top leader.
The Chinese government on Friday outlined a series of broad, but vaguely worded commitments to address some of the former British colony’s most divisive issues, including a pledge to “improve the system and mechanisms for appointing and removing the chief executive and other principle officials.” Communist Party leaders also vowed stronger measures to teach “patriotism” to young people and public officials.
The policies were endorsed during the first meeting of the party’s Central Committee in more than 20 months, a gathering that wrapped up Thursday in Beijing. Hong Kong, which has been gripped by often violent pro-democracy demonstrations for almost five months, was an “important part” of closed-door discussions led by President Xi Jinping, a Chinese official told a news briefing Friday.
A communique released by the Central Committee on Thursday said the 200-plus member body decided to “establish and improve the legal system and enforcement mechanisms” to protect national security in Hong Kong and neighboring Macau. On Friday, Shen Chunyao, chairman of the National People’s Congress’s Basic Law Committee, went further, telling reporters that Beijing intended to “exercise all powers vested in the Central Government under Constitution and the Basic Law.”
Specifically, Shen cited plans to “strengthen education of the Constitution and the Basic Law, as well as China’s national conditions, in Hong Kong and Macau society, especially among public officials and young people.” Shen said that authorities would also seek to bolster protections against foreign interference in Hong Kong -- something Chinese officials have long blamed for stoking dissent in the global financial center.
“My interpretation of these passages is they are going to take a hard-nosed approach, that they will continue to clamp down on Hong Kong,” opposition lawmaker Fernando Cheung said Friday. “In other words, to turn Hong Kong into a police state.”
So far, Chinese leaders have resisted taking harsher measures such as sending in troops that could further undermine the city’s autonomy, which is crucial to maintaining special trading privileges from the U.S. that serve as a competitive advantage for its economy. In a National Day address on Oct. 1, Xi had called for stability in Hong Kong.
On Thursday, city police scuffled with protesters and party-goers alike in a chaotic Halloween of revelry and demonstrations, with clouds of tear gas wafting through the city’s Central and Mong Kok areas. Hong Kong’s courts had earlier granted the local government its second injunction in a week limiting online speech -- the latest being a 15-day ban on internet posts that incite violence or property damage.
Police said they arrested 249 people on suspicion of protest-related offenses between Monday and Thursday, out of more than 3,000 since historically large protests began on June 9. They fired some 144 tear gas rounds over that same four-day period.
Reforms to Hong Kong’s educational and electoral systems and national security laws have proven to be China’s greatest frustrations since regaining sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, prompting some of the city’s biggest political crises. Before the current demonstrations, Hong Kong was struck by a wave of protests in 2014 against a China-backed election plan that would’ve ensured that only candidates approved by Beijing could run in what was supposed to be the first citywide chief executive election.
Last week, pro-establishment lawmaker Michael Tien told Bloomberg News that Beijing was looking into a plan to replace Chief Executive Carrie Lam, possibly as soon as next year, in a bid to quiet the unrest. Lam later dismissed such reports as “very malicious,” reiterating that she had Beijing’s support despite the protests.
Similar mass demonstrations in 2012 forced the government to shelve a planned “moral and national education” curriculum that encouraged Chinese patriotism. The recent protests -- many organized on campuses or led by students -- have renewed calls from pro-establishment figures for educational changes.
“Through historical and cultural education, our compatriots in Hong Kong and Macau should enhance their national awareness and patriotism,” Shen said.
On the mainland, the party exercises strict control over what is taught in schools of all levels. To celebrate the 70th anniversary of party rule on Oct. 1, China’s top leaders ordered renewed focus on “patriotic education,” emphasizing a program first enacted in 1994 and calling for “deep, lasting and vivid patriotic education among the young people.”
“They’re determined to further tighten control over Hong Kong,” said Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker. “Beijing has obviously realized by now that they’ve lost this current generation of Hong Kongers. And they’re trying their best to rein in the next and the next and the next. And they think brainwashing education will help.”
The local government has also failed to institute sweeping national security legislation as required by Article 23 of the city’s Basic Law. The proposal, which among other things would enact laws to “prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the region,” has been on hold since an earlier bout of mass protests in 2003.
Even before the most recent protests erupted in June, many of China’s critics in Hong Kong saw passage of Article 23 as Beijing’s top legislative priority. Chinese officials have repeatedly accused the U.S., the U.K. and other unnamed foreign countries of acting as a “black hand” behind the protests, citing official statements and contacts between protest leaders and foreign diplomats and lawmakers.
China will “resolutely guard against and curb foreign forces from interfering in and sabotaging Hong Kong and Macau affairs such as engaging in separatist, subversive and infiltration activities,” Shen said.
(Updates with arrest figures in nineth paragraph)
--With assistance from John Liu, Sharon Chen and Shelly Banjo.
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