BEIJING — Beijing urged Hong Kong’s embattled leader on Wednesday to support a push to impose national security measures in the territory, which has been hit by months of antigovernment protests. The trouble is that what China’s ruling Communist Party has proposed is not clear and could be hard to enforce.
The party hopes that such national security measures will head off unrest in Hong Kong that has challenged its authority. But Hong Kong’s politicians have little appetite for security legislation that could set off more intense protests. Many experts also doubt how much Beijing can directly impose its will on the territory’s legal system without dangerously damaging trust in Hong Kong’s special status both there and internationally.
China’s latest warning to end the protests that have pummeled Hong Kong for 22 weeks was delivered by Han Zheng, a vice premier who oversees Chinese policy toward the territory, when he met Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s top official, in Beijing on Wednesday.
“This extreme violence and destruction would not be tolerated or accepted by any country or society in the world,” Mr. Han told Mrs. Lam, according to footage of the meeting shown by Phoenix, a Hong Kong-based television service.
Mr. Han reiterated the support that Xi Jinping, China’s president and Communist Party leader, expressed in Mrs. Lam in Shanghai on Monday. But he underscored the Chinese government’s impatience with the protests, which he described as the worst trouble in Hong Kong since Beijing regained sovereignty of the territory from the British in 1997.
“Stopping the violence and disorder, and restoring order, is the most important task now,” Mr. Han said.
He cited a Chinese Communist Party announcement last week of planned national security measures for Hong Kong, and pointedly added that the idea had received support.
“I’ve noticed that the public is paying a lot of attention to this,” he said. “The reaction has been intense.”
Throughout the protests, the Chinese government has struggled to match its hard-line rhetoric with effective policies. That problem could deter or frustrate the push to drive through national security measures covering the territory.
Earlier, China’s suggestions that it could send troops to Hong Kong to help end the protests petered out, dismissed as unrealistic by experts and many Hong Kongers. Chinese propaganda outlets, which depicted the protesters as puppets of “hostile foreign forces,” seemed caught flat footed when Mrs. Lam announced that she would formally drop the draft extradition legislation that ignited the discontent.
The central government has repeatedly expressed support for Hong Kong’s police force, but officers have struggled to drive back crowds of masked protesters by using tear gas, water cannons and sometimes live gunfire.
In mainland China, Mr. Xi has driven far-reaching changes through the party-controlled legislature. But Hong Kong’s British-derived legal system could complicate, even confound, any Chinese attempt to directly impose laws against national security crimes, several experts said.
Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing member of Mrs. Lam’s cabinet, said she expected that Mrs. Lam would make little progress on national security legislation. Mrs. Ip was the security secretary for Hong Kong in 2003 when the government made an unsuccessful attempt to introduce such measures.
“It’s not something that can happen anytime soon,” Mrs. Ip said of any new push for national security legislation. “But it’s clearly something that weighs heavily on the minds of the Chinese leaders.”
Just how heavily Hong Kong weighs on Mr. Xi and other leaders became clear in recent days.
Last week, Chinese Communist Party leaders approved a set of proposals for strengthening government, including one that said China would “build and improve a legal system and enforcement mechanism to defend national security” in Hong Kong.
The full decision from their meeting, released on Tuesday, also laid out proposals to support the city’s police force and expand education intended to promote patriotic loyalty to China, though the party has not issued details of its plans.
Hong Kong’s inability to pass security legislation has long irked Chinese officials. Article 23 of the Basic Law, the mini-constitution defining Hong Kong’s status under China, says the territory “shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition and subversion” against the Chinese government.
But after the upheaval over the extradition bill, Hong Kong’s leaders and legislators would be reluctant to use Article 23, said Wei Leijie, a law professor at Xiamen University in southeastern China who studies Hong Kong.
“That road has been blocked,” he said by telephone. “The obstacles are immense.”
Yet the Communist Party leaders’ decision last week has kindled expectations among some that Mr. Xi could push Mrs. Lam or her successor to enact a national security law. Comments in Chinese state-run news outlets have called for quick action, as have Hong Kong commentators loyal to China.
If Hong Kong “does not pass legislation on its own, and this keeps dragging out too long, that would also be intolerable,” said Gu Minkang, a Chinese researcher on Hong Kong law who teaches at a college in Hunan Province in southern China, said by telephone.
He and other experts and politicians have argued that China could force through national security legislation for Hong Kong if Mrs. Lam or her successor failed to get the territory’s legislative council to approve a bill.
Although election laws ensure that the council is dominated by pro-Beijing members, they could waver in voting for contentious security legislation, as some did in 2003, when a previous bill failed.
Some experts argue that under another section of the Basic Law, Article 18, China has the power to impose laws against at least some security threats in Hong Kong by putting them into an annex of the Basic Law.
But imposing any laws against political subversion and similar crimes on Hong Kong is much easier said than done, other experts said.
The Basic Law clearly indicates that the power to enact legislation covering major national security crimes, such as treason and seeking secession, belonged in the hands of Hong Kong lawmakers, Danny Gittings, an expert on Hong Kong’s legal status, said in a telephone interview.
Even Chinese laws lodged in the annex of the Basic Law must be approved by Hong Kong’s chief executive or its legislature to come into force, he said. That step could prove politically incendiary, and laws would be open to challenge in Hong Kong courts.
“It’s not enough to put it in the Basic Law,” Mr. Gittings said. “It’s got to go through the local process.”
Declaring a state of emergency in the territory could blast a hole through such legal concerns, Mr. Gittings said. But that step could inflame protests and shake global confidence in Hong Kong as a financial center.
If China declared a state of emergency to impose security legislation, said Professor Wei, the Chinese legal academic, “the situation in Hong Kong could be hard to clean up.”
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