BEIJING — China’s Communist Party has long pursued its agenda in Hong Kong by working through loyalists among the city’s top officials, lawmakers and tycoons. That behind-the-scenes approach was a key feature in preserving considerable autonomy for the territory.
Now, as the party prepares to grab more power in Hong Kong after months of sometimes violent unrest last year, it has pushed aside even its own allies in the city. The party’s strategy sends a clear message to Hong Kong: In quashing challenges to its authority, Beijing won’t hesitate to upend the delicate political balance at the core of the city’s identity.
Party-appointed lawmakers in Beijing are expected to pass a sweeping security law for Hong Kong on Tuesday. Yet few among the city’s Beijing-backed establishment, even at the highest levels, appear to have seen a draft. Its top leader, Carrie Lam, and secretary for justice, Teresa Cheng, have both acknowledged knowing little about the law beyond what has been reported in the news.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Ms. Cheng said earlier this month.
Bernard Chan, a Hong Kong cabinet official and a member of the Chinese legislature, said that he had not even expected Beijing to act this spring. “I’m actually surprised, caught by surprise with the timing,” he said in an interview.
The sidelining of Hong Kong’s elite is the latest sign that in his pursuit for power, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, is willing to defy political norms established over decades, and will do so swiftly and secretively. Mr. Xi’s decision to have Beijing take charge points to how deeply the months of protests in Hong Kong have unsettled his administration’s confidence in its handpicked allies in the city.
“There was a mood among mainland officials that we needed a second handover of Hong Kong to China, and we’re moving toward that,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. “I don’t think Beijing trusts the Hong Kong elites any more.”
Even before Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, Beijing was cultivating ties with tycoons who had fled communism in China for the city and built vast fortunes in trading, banking, real estate and industry. The tycoons, together with British-trained civil servants, later formed the establishment Beijing entrusted with running the city alongside an independent judiciary, police, academic system and capitalist model.
The elite have served as Beijing’s eyes and ears. They have defended the Communist Party’s interests by promoting patriotism and pushing through unpopular laws, including one earlier this month that criminalized disrespect of the national anthem.
But the establishment has struggled to balance Beijing’s desire for control with residents’ demands to preserve the autonomy that has shielded them from the mainland’s feared security services and opaque, often harsh legal system.
When protests erupted last summer, the city’s leadership was responsible for trying to quell it but was not empowered by Beijing to make major concessions, resulting in an impasse. The pro-Beijing camp now also sees the Communist Party’s new assertiveness as a sign of its impatience with the local establishment’s failure to pass national security laws on its own.
“They delegated that authority to us to do it and we failed, we failed 23 years. So they said, OK, we’ll take it back,” said Mr. Chan, the top government adviser. “So we can’t say anymore that we didn’t have a chance.”
Beijing also increasingly recognizes that the influence of its pro-business allies has fueled public anger over the small pensions and costly housing that have made Hong Kong one of the most unequal places in the world. Support for the pro-Beijing camp has fallen to record lows: They suffered a resounding defeat in local district elections in November, and could see potentially heavy losses in legislative elections in September.
The party’s push for more overt control throws into question the role of Hong Kong’s elite in the coming months and years. Establishment figures now find themselves in the awkward position of having to defend a law they have not seen in detail, amid growing pressure from Beijing to demonstrate loyalty.
“I am also disappointed that we can’t see the bill,” Elsie Leung, a stalwart Beijing ally and former secretary for justice, told reporters, in a rare admission. She said, though, that she believed that Beijing had heard different views about the law.
For many in Hong Kong, such reassurances have largely rung hollow. The city’s residents are accustomed to very public, sometimes rowdy discussions of new laws by the city’s legislature. Confronted with Beijing’s secrecy, Hong Kong’s democracy activists, scholars and former chief justices have asked: Who would get to rule on cases? Would Hong Kong’s residents be extradited to the mainland? Would the law be used retroactively to prosecute protesters?
Mrs. Lam, the city’s leader, has sought to allay the public’s concerns, saying this week that Beijing had pledged to preserve the city’s civil liberties. But she acknowledged not having seen the specifics of the legislation.
Tanya Chan, a pro-democracy lawmaker, said Beijing had undercut the city government’s credibility. “How could we believe you?” she said in an interview.
“The entire law is to be imposed on Hong Kong, but the government is willing to be a propaganda machine without having seen the clauses,” Ms. Chan said. “Not only did they not help citizens fight for the right to know, they were blinded themselves.”
Even without releasing a draft of the law, China last week made clear that its passage would grant Beijing expansive powers in the city. It would allow mainland security agencies to set up operations in Hong Kong and for Beijing to assert legal jurisdiction over some cases. The law calls for a mainland security official to be an adviser to Mrs. Lam and for tighter controls on the city’s schools, which have been hotbeds of sometimes violent activism.
The law would make it a crime to collude with foreigners, push for independence, subvert the state or otherwise endanger the party’s rule. Beijing has not yet disclosed how these crimes will be defined, but many pro-democracy lawyers and activists fear they will be applied broadly to muzzle dissent and shut down the opposition.
The Chinese government crafted the national security plan this spring with such stealth to prevent the city’s tycoons and professionals from lobbying against it.
“Beijing this time has kept its secret very well,” said Lau Siu-kai, a former senior Hong Kong government official who now advises Beijing on the territory’s policies. These days, he added, “the military and the national security people are more influential in Hong Kong affairs.”
Besides marginalizing the party’s allies in Hong Kong, Mr. Xi also removed and replaced several of Beijing’s longest-serving officials dealing with the territory’s affairs, including Sun Lijun, a deputy minister of public security.
Up until January, the head of Beijing’s powerful Liaison Office in Hong Kong was Wang Zhimin, who was a fixture on the Hong Kong cocktail party circuit, hobnobbing with bankers, captains of industry and top civil servants. Mr. Wang was said to have been criticized in Beijing for not foreseeing the grass-roots anger that fed Hong Kong’s protests.
He was replaced by Luo Huining, an official from central China who spent much of his career as a tough security enforcer in northwestern China. Unlike Mr. Wang, Mr. Luo does not speak Cantonese, makes few public appearances in Hong Kong and often works from a backup office in Beijing, not Hong Kong. Mr. Xi also installed a trusted aide as the new head of an office in Beijing that oversees Hong Kong affairs.
“These new leaders are little known in Hong Kong,” said Regina Ip, a Hong Kong cabinet member and the leader of a pro-Beijing party in the legislature.
As Hong Kong has become deeply polarized between Beijing’s allies and democracy advocates, a shrinking political center has looked for compromises. But it is unlikely to wring major concessions from Beijing.
James Tien, a moderate politician and honorary chairman of the pro-establishment Liberal Party, has emerged as one of the few establishment figures willing to acknowledge that Beijing’s move is deeply unpopular and unsettling, despite the party’s assertion that the law enjoys wide support.
“I think most people will say that we don’t like it, we don’t want it,” he said last week in an interview with Radio Television Hong Kong. “But there’s nothing much we could do.”
Keith Bradsher reported from Beijing and Elaine Yu from Hong Kong.