China will ensure Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability and protect national security in the face of unrest there, the ruling Communist Party said on Thursday after a meeting of its senior leadership, though it unveiled no new policy steps.
The former British colony, which reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, has been convulsed by often-violent protests over the past five months, prompting China’s central government to issue strict warnings that it will not allow the turmoil to continue.
What started as opposition to a now-withdrawn extradition bill has grown into a pro-democracy movement against what is seen as Beijing’s tightening grip on the Asian financial hub, which protesters say undermines a “one country, two systems” formula promised when Hong Kong was handed back, guaranteeing freedoms not found in mainland China.
The unrest represents the biggest popular challenge to President Xi Jinping’s government since he took over the leadership in late 2012.
China denies meddling and has accused foreign governments, including the United States and Britain, of stirring up trouble. Beijing says it is committed to defending Hong Kong’s system of autonomy and the Basic Law, or mini-constitution, guides Hong Kong’s relations with Beijing.
In a statement issued after a four-day, closed-door meeting of the Communist Party’s 370 or so top officials in Beijing, the party said that the “one country, two systems” must be “upheld and perfected”.
“We must strictly govern the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and the Macau Special Administrative Region in strict accordance with the Constitution and the Basic Law, and safeguard the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and Macau,” it said.
Neighboring Macau returned to China from Portuguese rule in 1999.
“Establish a sound legal system and enforcement mechanism for safeguarding national security in special administrative regions,” the party added, without providing details.
Last month Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam invoked colonial-era emergency powers to ban face masks, which have been widely used by the protesters to hide their identities.
China has quietly more than doubled its deployment of mainland security forces in Hong Kong, according to foreign envoys and security analysts, in a dramatic move by Beijing to prepare for a potential worsening of the unrest.
China has other worries too.
The party statement also took aim at Chinese-claimed and self-ruled Taiwan, which holds presidential elections in January, saying China must achieve “peaceful reunification” and oppose Taiwan independence.
Taiwan is China’s most sensitive political issue. China’s defense minister said last week that resolving the “Taiwan question” was his country’s “greatest national interest”.
Proudly democratic Taiwan has shown no interest in being run by autocratic China.
The party meeting, formally called a plenum, took place as the party faces several challenges, from Hong Kong to slowing economic growth – and a bruising trade war with the United States, which was not mentioned in the closing statement.
Xi has sought to tighten party control over every aspect of life at the same time as China flexes its muscles internationally, with a growing military capability and diplomatic footprint.
The communique called for consolidating ideological control and new measures to build public confidence in the country’s socialist system.
“We must strengthen our cultural self-confidence, firmly grasp the direction of the advanced socialist culture, inspire the vitality of the national culture, and build a Chinese spirit, Chinese value, and Chinese power.”
The statement reiterated that the party must lead everything from “east, west, south, north and in the center”, and called for tighter leadership over the armed forces, with a focus on Xi’s own military guidance.
“We must firmly establish the guiding position of Xi Jinping’s strong military thinking in national defense and army building.”
On the economic front, the plenum document provided no surprises or new content. It affirmed that China would let the market play a decisive role in resource allocations and pursue the high quality development of its economy.
The party would unwaveringly consolidate and develop the state sector, but in the meantime encourage, support and guide the development of the “non-state sector”, in other words, private companies.
“The comment on improving the socialist economic system, including that on resource allocation, is the same as previous statements,” said Tang Jianwei, senior economist at Bank of Communications in Shanghai
“There is nothing new in the wording.”