The novel coronavirus ground the world to a halt, and restive Hong Kong was no exception. Protests dwindled, social distancing took hold, and the city's tear-gassed streets and incendiary politics seemed to fade from the world's attention.
In mainland China, all energy turned to the city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began. Tens of thousands of doctors and nurses rushed to stem a flood of infections. They were followed by legions of propaganda workers dispatched to silence questions about why the virus spread was so bad, and to replace grief with praise for the government's success.
But Hong Kong never faded from Beijing's larger designs. At the height of China's COVID-19 crisis, while central authorities fired party bosses in Wuhan and Hubei province, they also installed new representatives in Hong Kong, bringing in Communist Party hard-liners known for crackdowns on corruption and religion to oversee the former British colony.
Now that China's virus crisis has calmed — and the rest of the world is distracted by the pandemic — Beijing's newcomers in Hong Kong are trying to stop the likely return of last year's protests, which evolved from resistance to an extradition bill to a citywide anti-government movement.
They've taken an aggressive approach, calling for a national security law to stifle dissent, criticizing opposition lawmakers in Hong Kong's parliament and claiming for the first time that they have "supervisory power" over the region's legal and political systems. When 15 prominent pro-democracy figures were arrested in a single day, legal and political entities spoke with one voice, accusing the activists of promoting separatism with help from the United States.
Tensions are rising: Last weekend, police clashed with several hundred protesters who had gathered in a mall to sing revolutionary anthems and demand amnesty for the recently arrested activists. Police have refused to grant permission for a protest on May 1, citing coronavirus concerns. Authorities have delayed decisions on an annual vigil June 4 to mark the Tiananmen Square massacre and planned marches later in June and July.
The city seems poised for another explosive summer. But this time, mainland authorities are getting more directly involved.
The Hong Kong Liaison Office and the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, Beijing's two representatives in the city, caused an uproar when they claimed this month that a law barring central government departments from interference in Hong Kong’s internal affairs does not apply to them.
The two offices have "supervisory power," they said, over how Hong Kong implements the Basic Law, its quasi-constitution, and the "one country, two systems" agreement that Beijing will leave most of Hong Kong's internal affairs alone until 2047, when Hong Kong’s semiautonomous status ends.
The "supervisory power" move was a radical departure from how law has long been interpreted in Hong Kong.
“It’s basically a declaration on the part of Beijing that Basic Law doesn’t constrain their power at all," said Angeline Chan, convener of the Progressive Lawyers Group.
Hong Kong legal experts say Beijing’s representatives are claiming an authority not found in any legal text.
“Where do you get this supervisory power?" asked Johannes Chan, former dean of the faculty of law at the University of Hong Kong. "It gives rise to a vague and undefined notion of power, and it completely destroys [Hong Kong's] high degree of autonomy.”
From Beijing's perspective, the answer is simple: The power comes from the Communist Party.
"Rule of law absolutely does not mean weak leadership, but strengthened party leadership, improvement of party capacity to rule through law, and strengthening of the party's governing role," Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a 2018 speech, as quoted in the party journal Qiushi. Law should be used to turn party ideas into "national will," Xi said, and should avoid Western ideas such as constitutionalism, balance of powers or judicial independence.
Those three ideals are pillars of Hong Kong's legal system, supposedly protected by "one country, two systems" — until now.
Beijing and Hong Kong's relationship is laid out in the Basic Law, which allows Beijing to give final interpretations on what the law means and to appoint Hong Kong's top officials, said Johannes Chan.
The sudden assertion of "supervisory power" sidesteps the law altogether, he said, and could allow meddling in matters including parliamentary sessions and upcoming elections.
“That becomes rule of man rather than rule of law," he said. "It’s even worse than ‘rule by law.’ Now, it’s simply: The law means what the politicians want it to mean.”
The Liaison Office and HKMAO have long been involved in Hong Kong’s internal affairs, but usually through indirect channels, said John Burns, former dean of the faculty of social sciences at the University of Hong Kong.
Beijing is "pulling back the curtain a little bit, and saying: 'We have the authority and power to direct things in Hong Kong,'” Burns said. It is a calculated shift after Hong Kong’s government failed to contain mass protests last year, timed for a moment when countries battling the coronavirus are unlikely to pay attention.
But without addressing core problems — police brutality, lack of government accountability and unequal political representation that favors Hong Kong's pro-Beijing corporations over its citizens — this approach is likely to further incite protesters.
“There’s a certain point at which the legal system can’t bear the load anymore, and a fundamental trust in the system breaks,” said Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong-based lawyer and author of a book about last year’s protests.
That loss of faith in the system drove many of last year’s protesters. Asserting party "supervision" is likely to spark more unrest. It may also threaten financial interests vital to both Hong Kong and the mainland, as foreign banks and companies depend on Hong Kong’s rule of law to guarantee their business safety.
For lawyers like Angeline Chan, who is assisting some of the more than 7,000 arrested protesters — while only 21 police officers have been reprimanded, and none arrested — the law is worth defending, even as its foundations are being undermined. She has seen 13-year-old girls arrested on their way to school, first aid volunteers arrested while helping injured protesters.
“They’re facing the legal process. They’re facing trials and jails. They need representation,” she said.
Hong Kong’s protesters hold no illusions about Beijing, Chan added. They know they are facing a major international power that shows no signs of change. Yet lawyers, doctors, social workers, teachers, teenagers, parents and civil servants protested in the millions.
“If we don’t, then that’s conceding ground willingly," she said. “Things are not as they should be. But within the system, we’ve still got to protect what we’ve got left.”
For the record:
8:20 AM, Apr. 29, 2020: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of police officers reprimanded. It is 21, not one.