Hong Kong and Beijing: Demands for Democracy vs. State Security

Kawashima Shin [Profile]

[2015.05.27] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | ESPAÑOL | Русский |

Concern in Hong Kong over Beijing’s Designs

The “Umbrella Movement” in Hong Kong was a hot media topic in 2014. Also called the “Umbrella Revolution” and “Occupy Central,” this was a popular movement by Hong Kong people seeking to have their voices reflected more directly in the government of the Special Administrative Region. More specifically, people were protesting the move by Beijing to restrict the field of candidates in the election of the SAR’s chief executive scheduled for 2017, when the post is to be filled for the first time on the basis of a direct popular ballot.

China’s “one country, two systems” policy is supposed to give Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy, but the protesters apparently felt that the national government was moving to deprive them of the democratic rights and freedom they have enjoyed up to now.

Expanding the Scope of “State Security”

One point of particular interest in this connection is the tendency for the national authorities to cite the concept of China’s “state security” in their responses to the protests in Hong Kong. President Xi Jinping’s administration has established a State Security Committee, which some have called a Chinese version of the US National Security Council. At the first meeting of this committee on April 15, 2014, Xi called for the creation of a comprehensive system of state security covering the political, territorial, military, economic, cultural, social, scientific and technological, information, ecological, nuclear, and natural resources spheres.

Following this move, various issues within China have started to be discussed in terms of “state security.” In other words, this concept does not refer just to external security (national defense and the like) but is heavily tinged with elements of internal security as well. As a consequence, with state security taken to be the top priority, diverse types of social activities are now liable to be seen as threats to this security and to be repressed accordingly. This extension of the concept of state security may be one of the factors behind the actions taken during 2014 to repress discussions of history and movements in pursuit of civil rights, alongside the efforts to fight corruption and put down minority independence movements and the like.

Comments on Hong Kong from a Senior Party Leader

The issue of Hong Kong has also started to be discussed in terms of state security (the security of China, that is, not of Hong Kong itself). Zhang Dejiang, who heads the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and ranks number three in the hierarchy of the Communist Party of China, has made a number of comments that have provoked people in the SAR.

Speaking at a plenary meeting of the Hong Kong delegation to the NPC held in advance of the State Security Committee session in March 2014, Zhang noted that the election of the SAR chief executive by universal ballot is a major reform of Hong Kong’s political system and involves not just the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong itself but also the sovereignty, security, and development interests of the nation.(*1) A year later, in March 2015, Zhang spoke again about the connection between Hong Kong affairs and the sovereignty and security of the Chinese state. In these remarks, which followed the emergence of the Umbrella Movement, Zhang was more explicit, declaring that extremist forces had arisen in Hong Kong society and that words and deeds had emerged that could damage the sovereignty, security, and development interests of the nation, including the advocacy of independence for Hong Kong. Maintaining the sovereignty, security, and development interests of the nation, Zhang noted, is clearly the ultimate principle under the “one country, two systems” policy, and he warned that moves to challenge or change these could not be accepted. Separatist tendencies, such as calls for independence or autonomy for Hong Kong, would not win people’s hearts, he said, and could never be approved.(*2)

On Guard Against “Western Thinking”

Why are the Umbrella Movement and demands relating to the implementation of direct election of Hong Kong’s chief executive related to state security? First of all, as a region within China, the principle of self-determination is not applicable to Hong Kong. This goes for the issue of independence for Hong Kong and interpretation of the Basic Law regarding the SAR’s present and future status too. The thinking of the national authorities is that these are all matters to be decided by Beijing or by China as a whole.

The Chinese also see danger in the references to the Umbrella Movement in Western media and comments about it by Western political figures, including expressions of support for it as a movement for democracy. Furthermore,  the Chinese complain that outside forces are implanting “Western thinking” in Hong Kong and fanning anti-Communist and anti-Chinese ideology there.

This is deeply related to the idea that the situation regarding the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive is a matter of state security for China as a whole. Many suggestions are now being heard in China that either the State Security Law should be applied to Hong Kong or the SAR should adopt its own such law.

So the advocacy of democracy and freedom for Hong Kong has come to be seen as conflicting with the demands of state security, and in China the latter is considered to take priority. The possible spread of Western thinking regarding democracy and freedom from Hong Kong to the rest of China has also been identified as a threat to the rule of the CPC.

Security vs. Freedom: A Common Issue for Advanced Nations

The conflict between state security and demands for democracy and freedom is currently being waged in Hong Kong, but it is also an issue that concerns China as a whole. In order to avert the threat to CPC rule from the spread of Western thinking, legislation is being prepared to limit the activities of foreign nongovernmental organizations in China (including Hong Kong). And many historians have come under criticism for “Western-influenced” statements regarding sensitive historical issues. This is a major concern for Japan and other countries.

The conflicting pulls of security and of democracy and freedom are not seen only in China, however. Tensions between the logic of national security and the rights to democracy and freedom are commonly found in the advanced nations as well. In countries like the United States and Japan, some assert that the imperatives of national security are gradually winning out over democracy and freedom with respect to the handling of classified intelligence and in debates about media reporting. So it might be said that Western governments, facing such criticism at home, are walking a fine line when they support the democracy movement in Hong Kong.

(Originally written in Japanese on May 7, 2015.)

(*1) ^ http://cpc.people.com.cn/n/2014/0307/c64094-24553922-3.html (in Chinese), accessed April 21, 2015.

(*2) ^ http://news.china.com/2015lh/news/11170076/20150307/19357412.html (in Chinese), accessed April 21, 2015.

  • [2015.05.27]

Editor in chief of Nippon.com, professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo, and senior researcher at the Institute for International Policy Studies. Born in Tokyo in 1968. Graduated in 1992 from the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, where he majored in Chinese area studies. Received his PhD in history from the University of Tokyo. Previously an associate professor at Hokkaidō University. Author of Chūgoku kindai gaikō no keisei (The Formation of China’s Modern Foreign Policy), Kindai kokka e no mosaku 1894–1925 (Moves Toward a Modern State, 1894–1925), and other works.

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