As China imposes a sweeping new security law curtailing freedoms, Foreign Editor David Pratt examines the implications for the pro-democracy movement and whether the international community can muster an adequate response

His track record speaks for itself. Among his specialisms are stamping out subversion, secession, terrorism and “collusion” with “external elements.”

Zheng Yanxiong, 56, a Chinese Communist Party official, is a past master at such things, having honed his skills as far back as 2011 when he took charge of suppressing demonstrations against government land sales in the southern Chinese village of Wukan.

As of last week, Zheng now has an altogether more important role to play, having been appointed chief of Hong Kong’s Office for Safeguarding National Security.

While Zheng will still have his work cut out, he and his security cadres wasted no time in laying down a marker for those who might have the temerity to challenge the Chinese government’s new rule of law in Hong Kong.

Barely hours after midnight last Tuesday, in what The Economist dubbed “one of the biggest assaults on a liberal society since the Second World War”, as many as 400 people were arrested for national security crimes, among them a 24-year-old man accused of riding a motorcycle while flying a flag with the banned slogan: “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times.”

On Thursday, around the same moment that Zheng was making his ominous presence felt, another man, Nathan Law, was posting a Twitter thread that while brief, spoke volumes about the uncertain political future that now lies ahead for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

“So I bade my city farewell. As the plane took off the runway, I gazed down at the skyline I love so much for one last time. Should I have the fortune to ever return, I hope to still remain as I am: the same young man with these same beliefs. Glory to Hong Kong,” wrote Law, Hong Kong’s most prominent young democracy activist, as he fled his home city for an undisclosed location after fearing arrest. The 26-year-old said he made the decision to leave after criticising the new law at a US congressional hearing he attended via livestream last Wednesday.

“Of course, I knew my speech and appearance would put my own safety in serious jeopardy given the circumstances,” he also wrote on Twitter.

“As a global-facing activist, the choices I have are stark: to stay silent from now on, or to keep engaging in private diplomacy so I can warn the world of the threat of Chinese authoritarian expansion. I made the decision when I agreed to testify before the US Congress.”

Between them the stories of Zheng Yanxiong and Nathan Law, one man’s arrival and the other’s departure, encapsulate the dramatic events that unfolded last week in Hong Kong which left many in the territory and far beyond reeling over the Chinese government’s authoritarian moves.

In Britain – Hong Kong’s one-time colonial overseer – there was anger as Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the new law breached the Sino-British Joint Declaration that the UK signed in 1984.

“The enactment and imposition of this national security law constitutes a clear and serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration,” Johnson told MPs on Wednesday.

“It violates Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and is in direct conflict with Hong Kong basic law,” Johnson added.

Seeking immediately to bring pressure to bear on Beijing, Johnson announced the UK would offer sanctuary to Hong Kong citizens born before it handed back the colony to China in 1997.

It wasn’t, of course, the first time the UK Government has threatened such a measure, but with demonstrators being picked off the streets by the Chinese authorities, Britain was desperate to lay down a marker of its own that Beijing might take notice of.

It was left to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to announce a “bespoke” immigration plan, entitling almost three million British National (Overseas) (BNO) Hong Kongers, born in the territory before 1997, as well as their dependents, the right to live and work in Britain for five years, after which they can apply for citizenship.

Those who take up the offer will not need a job before arriving, and will not be subject to a salary threshold as part of the most generous opening of British borders to foreign workers since new EU citizens were welcomed in 2004.

But Britain wasn’t alone in its outrage over China’s moves. In Washington, where for some time there has been growing resentment between the administration of President Donald Trump and China’s Communist rulers, the US Senate unanimously passed a bill that would require sanctions on Chinese officials who erode Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy.

And on Wednesday, the US House passed legislation that would sanction banks that do business with Chinese officials involved in implementing the national security law. Around the world, from the European Union to Australia and Japan, there was condemnation of China. For its part the regime of Chinese president Xi Jinping, as is usual, simply rejected what it called “foreign interference”, saying, “Hong Kong affairs are China’s internal affairs.”

All told, this is a crisis that is not likely to disappear anytime soon. It begs many questions, among them why China chose now to make its move and what the implications might be for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, as well as the territory’s role as an economic hub and where it leaves Beijing’s relations with the wider international community.

To take the question of China’s timing first, while it might appear sudden, analysts say the signs of a heavier-handed approach from Beijing have been there for some time.

To begin with, the pro-democracy movement and Hong Kong’s street protests have been a thorn in the side of mainland China’s Communist Party rulers for too long as far as Beijing is concerned.

Images of tens of thousands of demonstrators in Hong Kong challenging the authorities have been a source of embarrassment for the regime and, in response, Beijing has increasingly deployed a divide-and-conquer strategy.

What happened last week, say analysts, was just the latest and most emphatic demonstration of the tightening grip of Xi Jinping who, since coming to power in 2012, has shrunk the space for civil society throughout China while increasingly bringing pressure to bear on political dissent in Hong Kong.

It goes hand in glove too, they say, with the kinds of draconian policies that have seen China’s authorities stifle political dissent, worker protests, student activism and erect mass detention camps elsewhere for persecuted ethnic minorities like the Uighurs in the far-western region of Xinjiang or those in Tibet.

“Hong Kong is a great world city, not a remote area like Xinjiang. But the government of Xi Jinping is now clearly determined to bring it into line,” was how a Financial Times editorial described Beijing’s move on the giant economic hub.

The coronavirus pandemic has also played a role, say some observers, creating an ideal backdrop for China against which to push forward with a more robust policy towards the territory.

“The West has been devastated by the pandemic, more so than China, and has been slower to recover economically,” observed Dr Simon Shen, an international relations consultant and adjunct associate professor at the University of Hong Kong, writing in The Diplomat magazine last week.

“Instead of decoupling from China, Beijing thinks the West is desperate for an influx of Chinese capital and markets. This notion encourages Beijing to pursue brinkmanship, in the form of confrontative ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’, its escalation of sharp power, and, most recently, Hong Kong’s national security law,” says Shen.

“As long as the international community does not put their condemnation into action, Beijing will keep pushing the envelope,” he added.

Should that pushing of the envelope prove the case then the implications for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement could be profound indeed. In a sign that the law is already having a chilling effect on the movement, the pro-democracy opposition party Demosisto announced it would disband. Core members of the party, among them Nathan Law, Jason Wong and Agnes Chow, quit the group last Tuesday.

“We believe that it will be difficult to continue operating under the current circumstances, feel deeply the need to disband, and that everyone should use more flexible methods to continue the resistance,” Demosisto wrote on social media.

Two other pro-independence groups, Hong Kong National Front and Studentlocalism, also said that they would disband in Hong Kong but continue to operate from overseas.

Many activists are firmly of the belief that the mass marches and demonstrations that were a hallmark of the movement will inevitably be a thing of the past for now and may never happen again. Tactically the options and strategies left open to activists are limited.

“We can continue to live in the city (and) choose to forget about the freedom and values and demands that we believe in or maybe we will have to just leave the city to continue this kind of spirit somewhere else,” said one 27-year-old protester who asked not to be identified when speaking to the American online new magazine Vox and echoing the concerns of others.

“Today, with this law passed, me and my friends think that we can never go back to what things were. Now we’re just another city, like Guangzhou or Shanghai or Beijing, one of the cities under mainland China’s control,” the activist added.

Many activists are also reported to have already been deleting their old social media posts or changed their names online. The New York Times, citing Betty Lau, the editor of InMedia HK, said writers had asked her to delete old posts with as many as 100 having already been removed. Under such pressure some activists have taken consolation in the belief that the rest of the world is watching and ready to support them, and doing all they can to pressure China.

Offering an escape route as Britain and other countries have for some Hong Kongers is one thing, but bringing real diplomatic or economic clout to bear on China’s powerhouse is something else entirely.

The extent of the challenge faced was revealed last week in the findings of a joint US-European report on relations with China that described “a deep sense of frustration, fatigue, and futility”.

The report, from the Asia Society, the Bertelsmann Stiftung and George Washington University, said that while concern about human rights abuses in China remains deep, individual countries have little leverage over Beijing on such issues. It would take concerted collective action to make any real impact on China’s thinking, experts concluded.

A joint effort could make a difference, but co-ordinated action seems unlikely given strained ties between the Trump administration and many of Washington’s traditional European allies. Speaking to the Associated Press news agency, Steve Tsang, who directs the China Institute at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, said that if the EU were to join forces on the issue with the “Five Eyes” alliance – the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – the group would have real economic clout. The EU, after all, is China’s largest trading partner.

But as Tsang also pointed out, currently it is “far fetched” to imagine either Johnson or Trump working with the EU on the issue given relations between Washington London and Brussels right now.

“It is reasonable for Beijing to calculate that both the UK and US are paper tigers,” Tsang said. “Boris is focused on Brexit. He is happy to co-operate with anyone except for the EU.”

Likewise from its own perspective, the EU would be reluctant to be drawn into the US-China trade war at the moment, experts say.

With any international response strategically hamstrung by such political and economic differences, the citizens of Hong Kong can only watch, wait and hope that action of some kind will come their way before China further consolidates its control. The signs though for the moment are less than encouraging.

As pro-democracy activists like Nathan Law flee the city in the hope of continuing their campaign while living in enforced exile, the old Chinese Communist Party enforcers like Zheng Yanxiong are getting down to familiar business in stamping out subversion, secession, terrorism and “collusion” with “external elements.” Hong Kong is facing anxious times ahead.

Indeed, it might never be quite the same again.